Friday, June 27, 2008

I'm Not Trying to Jinx Them. Honestly.

So the Royals won their sixth straight game tonight, the first time they've done that since they started the 2003 season 9-0. (By the way, this is ridiculous. The Royals went over five years without so much as a six-game winning streak? Is that a record? If I find out, I'll let you know.)

The Royals lost their tenth game in 2003, but then won their next two to start 11-1. This is relevant, because as of tonight the Royals have matched that streak by winning 11 of their last 12 games.

If they win tomorrow, they will have won 12 of 13 games, a stretch not seen in Kansas City since the 1994 Royals won 14 straight just before the strike.

Tomorrow's game is no gimmie by any means, not with Kyle Davies on the mound. On the other hand, Mark Mulder starts for the Cards, and he hasn't pitched in the majors since last September; he hasn't won a game in over two years.

If they do win, give it up for Trey Hillman, who will have accomplished something that Buddy Bell, Tony Pena, Tony Muser, and Bob Boone never did.

(And as much as I love beating up on inferior competition, can we get back to playing real major league teams soon? Over the last week and a half the Royals have lost ground on the Twins, who have won 10 straight. The Royals won today - but so did every other team in the AL Central.)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Royals Today: 6/25/2008.

Hey, if they keep winning, I’ll keep writing. Does that make me a fair-weather fan?

- You all realize that if the Royals had not blown a 4-0 lead on the Giants last Friday, they’d currently be riding their longest winning streak (11) since 1994?

As it is, 10 of 11 ain’t bad. I almost prefer it this way – an 11-game winning streak might focus attention on the fact that the Royals aren’t a laughingstock anymore. I prefer sneaking up on people. Or in the case of the Indians, sneaking past them.

A few weeks ago I wrote that you’re never as bad as you look when you’re losing, and you’re never as good as you look when you’re winning. We need to remember that adage now that we’re on the other side. At one point in tonight’s broadcast, Denny Matthews said, “the baseball gods have really been smiling on the Royals the last few weeks.” That’s probably the first time you could make that statement about the Royals since 2003, but it bears repeating: for as good as the Royals have been playing, they’ve gotten some breaks as well. The biggest, of course, being that they’ve been playing Quintuple-A (not quite Quadruple-A, not quite major league) teams for the past two weeks.

- You know things are going well when Ross Gload is keying the offense. He went 2-for-4 on Sunday, including a pivotal single in the five-run sixth; he walked and hit his first homer of the season on Monday; a pair of singles on Tuesday, both of which keyed rallies; and he went 3-for-3 tonight, scoring the team’s first run after a double and then driving in the last two runs with another double.

Since June 14th, when this streak began, Gload is 14-for-42 (.333) with three doubles and a homer. He was hitting .239/.277/.276 prior to then. Mike Aviles became the starting shortstop on June 6th, and since the 14th he’s 16-for-44 (.364) with six doubles and two homers. It would be an overstatement to claim that the only reason that the Royals are playing so much better than before is because they are getting some semblance of production from shortstop and first base. It would be an overstatement, but not by much. The Royals spent almost two months trying to compete with a seven-man lineup. If anything Gload’s hot streak only serves to remind us what a difference it makes to have a first baseman who can, you know, hit. If only we had one of those somewhere…

- Counting the brief and ineffective cameos that Callaspo and German have made at the position, Royals shortstops other than Aviles have hit .153 (32-for-209) this season, with six extra-base hits. You want to know how bad that is?

Royals SS: 209 AB, 32 H, 4 D, 2 T, 0 HR, 10 BB, 10 RBI, .153/.191/.191
Cardinals P: 161 AB, 30 H, 6 D, 0 T, 2 HR, 10 BB, 21 RBI, .186/.233/.261

The Royals’ numbers above don’t count Aviles. (And before you ask, the Cardinals’ numbers don’t count Ankiel.) The scouts all know it’s bad luck when your shortstops are out-hit by another team’s pitching staff. Maybe the fans who wanted Zack Greinke to start there on his off-days had it right.

So there you have it: the difference between the Royals of June and the Royals of April and May is Michael Anthony Aviles. Long may he reign.

- Coming into the season, Luke Hochevar projected to be a league-average starter, and that’s exactly what he’s been: in 13 starts, he’s 5-5 with a 4.60 ERA, which is as average as they come. But league-average pitchers come in all shapes and sizes, and the particular shape of Hochevar’s performance has surprised me. Specifically, I had no idea back in April that he was such a groundball pitcher. The talk about Hochevar was that he had four pitches that graded out at average or better, not that he had an outstanding sinker. Today, we know better.

Tonight was a virtuoso performance, one unseen in these parts in a long, long time. Hochevar struck out just 3 of 31 batters he faced, but he was nonetheless brilliant. He got 17 groundball outs, against just three flyball outs. He got two key double plays. Groundballs are less likely to go foul than flyballs, which is why groundball pitchers tend to be more efficient with their pitches – and Hochevar threw just 95 pitches in eight innings. Only once in the last five seasons had a Royal thrown 8+ innings with 95 pitches or less. (You won’t guess right in a million years – Jorge de la Rosa, last April, threw 94 pitches in eight innings.)

Counting tonight’s performance, Hochevar has allowed 140 groundballs and just 71 flyballs this season, a ratio of 1.97 which would rank him 11th among major league starters (min: 60 IP) this season. The three guys directly above him on the list are Greg Maddux, Chien-Ming Wang, and his opposing starter tonight, Aaron Cook. That’s excellent company for a starter to be in, particular a starter who doesn’t have a huge strikeout rate. We’ve come to grips with the fact that Hochevar won’t be an ace befitting his draft status, but he seems to be on the career track of a guy like Cook or Derek Lowe, a guy who can give you 200 innings a season and keep his ERA a little below league average. There are a lot of #1 overall picks who would have loved to have a career like that.

- The similarities between Greinke and Schilling continue to amaze me. I’ve previously documented the pair’s stinginess when it comes to the unearned run. On Tuesday night Greinke struck out 10 and walked none, but somehow still managed to surrender 9 hits in 6 innings – that’s the sort of start Schilling is famous for. (Although Zack will be hard-pressed to match this start.)

Greinke is the exact opposite of Hochevar - he gets lots of strikeouts and lots of flyballs, and you pretty much have to beat him with the home run, which makes him a perfect fit for Kauffman Stadium. I’m not sure I’d agree with the sentiment that “If you asked me which pitcher will be the most successful over the next seven years I would take Zach [sic] Greinke.” But between now and the end of the season, the single most important step Dayton Moore can take in securing the future of the franchise is to get The Baseball Jonah signed to a long-term deal.

- Last Thursday I was watching the afternoon game from work through my connection, which is high-quality for streaming video but still a little choppy. The Royals were nursing a one-run lead in the top of the ninth when Teahen batted with a man aboard. As the 1-0 pitch reached the plate the feed flickered for just a millisecond, enough that I could not see the impact of bat on ball. But in the fraction of a second before the cameras showed the trajectory of the ball, my synapses flashed, “that’s a home-run swing.” And that impression means more to me going forward than the fact that the ball cleared the right-field fence.

Teahen’s plate approach has been discussed and dissected by far greater writers than myself, including both Posnanski and Michael Lewis, to the point where even soccer fans in Uruguay know that Teahen prefers slapping the ball to left field rather than trying to pull the ball for power. Posnanski has written that the Royals should embrace this approach, make Teahen their leadoff hitter, and tell him to hit line drives and get on base – to turn him into David DeJesus, in other words. I love Poz, but this is one issue on which I completely disagree.

The simple fact is that Teahen has been an above-average hitter exactly one time in his career – the one time (2006) when he hit for power. A corner outfielder who doesn’t hit for power has to hit .310-.320 consistently to have much value, and that high a batting average requires either blazing speed or an excellent contact rate. Teahen is fast but not that fast, and he’s averaged 133 Ks per 162 games in his career. He’s a .270 hitter, and that’s not going to change.

What can change is his power, but he’s not going to hit for power until he starts pulling the ball in the air (Monday’s impressive opposite-field homer notwithstanding.) Teahen has the talent, and he has the track record, even if it was just a three-month span two seasons ago. Last Thursday, he showed the kind of swing that we need to see a lot more of. He’s hit five homers this month, and if his power barrage continues, I may withdraw my standing request that hitting coach Mike Barnett be dismissed.

- For the record: I think the acquisition of Robinson Tejeda is intriguing. Tejeda has a 5.01 career ERA in over 260 innings, but he’s just 26 and has a power arm. But what really gives me reason for optimism is that he’s never really been tried as a reliever, either at the major or minor league level. In ten pro seasons he has made just 35 relief appearances. All pitchers have a tendency to pitch better in relief, and as I mentioned a while back when talking about Soria, the pitchers who tend to show the most improvement are Three True Outcome pitchers, i.e. guys who get lots of strikeouts, lots of walks, and lots of homers. That’s pretty much Tejeda in a nutshell. Let’s see what Bob McClure can do with him; “better than Yabuta” would be a nice, and easily reachable, first step.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Royals Today: 6/23/2008.

Powered by the biggest win of the season Sunday, and the random sight of a Royals fan wearing his powder-blue Billy Butler Kauffman Stadium giveaway jersey as I drove by the corner of Grand and Wabash in downtown Chicago after the game, it’s time for a notes column. This one is set to the chronological rhythms of yesterday’s game.

- 5-0 San Francisco, middle of the 2nd.

I haven’t written about him much, if at all, so far this season. But if you really think that Kyle Davies has turned the corner in 2008…well, think again. Going into yesterday’s game, he had a 1.46 ERA – and as many walks (12) as strikeouts. Even after his performance yesterday his ERA stands at 3.12, the best in the rotation. It’s a fraud. He’s thrown 26 innings, he’s walked 14 and struck out 13, and he’s allowed 29 hits. The results have been as good as they have for two reasons: he hasn’t allowed a home run yet, and opposing hitters are batting .367 with no one on, but just .216 with men on base.

Davies is not a groundball pitcher, so the home run rate can’t hold, and the performance from the stretch is also unsustainable. Even in Omaha, where he had a 2.06 ERA this season, his peripherals were uninspiring (37 Ks, 20 BBs, and any ratio under 2-to-1 in the minors is not the hallmark of a good pitching prospect.) His age and track record suggest he can be better than this, and I’m happy to have him as a fifth starter, but expect more starts like yesterday’s in the future.

- 10-3 San Francisco, middle of the 5th.

Jeff Fulchino isn’t the most unlikely player the Royals have ever called up, but he has to be on the short list. I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the farm system or anything, but I take it to be a bad sign when the Royals call a player up and my first reaction is, “who?” Nothing compares to the immortal Eduardo Villacis, of course, but Fulchino ranks up there with Steve Stemle, a strike-throwing non-entity who was called up in 2005, and spent most of the next two years drawing a major league paycheck on the DL. (Hey, good for him – I’m always happy when a minor league lifer makes some major league coin.)

Fulchino’s a veteran minor league starter who spent 7 years with the Marlins before the Royals signed him as a reliever. This is where I’m supposed to write, “and he was a different pitcher out of the bullpen,” only that’s not really the case. In 38 innings for Omaha this year, he had a 3.99 ERA, allowed 44 hits and 16 walks – this isn’t the second coming of Francisco Rodriguez. This may have been a reaction to Joel Peralta and the Royals wanting a pitcher who wouldn’t surrender a home run every three innings – but if so, it was an overreaction. Fulchino does not resemble a major league pitcher, so until MLB awards bonus points for degree of difficulty in coming back from seven runs down, he has no place on this team. There are half a dozen guys in Omaha I’d rather see manning the last spot in the bullpen.

(Late update: after due consideration, it appears the Royals have re-considered their position. Fulchino was sent down, and Peralta is back. Just keep Joel off the mound when the tying run’s at the plate in the ninth.)

Oh, and remember when people were saying that Yasuhiko Yabuta was coming around? Yeah, not so much. He’s got a 5.46 ERA, and hitters are batting .297/.377/.492 against him. His ex-teammate in Japan, Masahide Kobayashi, has a 3.03 ERA for the Indians – I guess there’s a reason Yabuta was the set-up man and Kobayashi was the closer. Yabuta’s facing an uphill battle to even survive to the end of his contract next year without being released.

- 10-5 San Francisco, end of the 5th.

The Royals’ modest two-run rally was capped by another RBI single off the bat of Jose Guillen. I’m sure you all know this, but to reiterate:

Jose Guillen through May 5th: .165/.198/.306
Jose Guillen since: .377/.389/.640, 19 doubles, 9 homers, and 43 RBIs in 43 games.

Guillen deserves a column all on his own, but the point I want to make is that even as Guillen has turned his season around, his plate discipline (never good to begin with) has declined to non-existent. He had five walks through May 5th, just two since, and the last one came May 15th. Since then, he has hit .356 with a .611 slugging average in 152 plate appearances, and thanks to a couple HBPs he has a .362 OBP.

Jose Guillen has gone almost 6 weeks without a walk – and in that time he has a .362 OBP. He’s threatening to single-handedly destroy one of the prime directives of sabermetrics. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but I can’t help but be impressed. I mean, Vladimir Guerrero would be impressed.

- 10-10 tie, end of the 6th.

Hillman deserves all kinds of credit for being aggressive in the bottom of the inning, pinch-hitting for Callaspo with the score 10-6, two on and none out, and getting a key single to continue the rally. And DeJesus just continued what to this point has been his best season; he’s hitting .309/.370/.470, including a .364/.427/.616 mark since May 27th. Last season was the worst of his career, the result of his batting average dropping 35 points for no reason – he didn’t strike out any more than usual, and his power and walk rate were roughly in line with previous years. It looked like a fluke then, and it looks like a fluke now. I’m thinking my trade proposal that would have sent him to the Cubs for Pie and Cedeno may not have been such a good idea…

…particularly because with Mike Aviles, who needs Cedeno? His two-out, two-run double tied the game. He’s hitting .328 with a .625 slugging average. He has more total bases in 64 at-bats (40) than Pena has in 164 AB (32). It’s been years, maybe over a decade, since any hitter came up and made this dramatic an impression in the first 2-3 weeks of his career with the Royals. I’ll let those of you who go to the games respond – is he a hit with the fans at the park? There was pandemonium when he tied the game yesterday, but that’s to be expected when you come back from seven runs down.

Aviles doesn’t have a nickname yet – yes, I owe you a report on that – and our friends at Royals Review are debating a nickname for Aviles while making fun of my hair. (Just as you’re not supposed to field between hops, apparently I’m not supposed to be photographed between haircuts. This photo is a few years old; I’ve since given up and go with the nearly-shaved-head look. Or as we call it at Baseball Prospectus, “The Carroll.” Also, “The Goldstein.” Or if you want, “The Sheehan.” Keith Woolner didn’t leave us because the Indians offered him a job – he got out while he still had his hair.) Where was I…oh, yeah, you can vote on a nickname here. Though none of these grab me just yet.

Aviles is not going to keep hitting like this. If he settles in as a .280 hitter with 30 doubles and 10-15 homers a year, he can play every day. If he settles in as a .260 hitter with 25 doubles and 8-10 homers a year, Moore will find a glove to replace him. More and more, I’m betting on the former.

- 11-10 Kansas City, middle of the 8th.

I think I’ve said this before, that one of the most compelling reasons why I’m such a big fan of Dayton Moore is that the vast majority of his moves look far better six months after the fact than they do at the time they’re made. It looks like he’s fooled me again. I didn’t like the Ron Mahay signing at all. I didn’t think the Royals needed to spend $4 million a year on a situational reliever, but specifically a left-handed situational reliever. The Royals had Jimmy Gobble, John Bale, and Neal Musser already on hand, and adding a fourth lefty specialist to the pile made no sense whatsoever.

Except that John Bale made a stunningly successful transition to the rotation in spring training, and then was stunningly unsuccessful in the regular season, both in terms of pitching and in remembering to take his frustrations out with his non-throwing hand. And then Jimmy Gobble decided to see how far he could push the envelope with the concept of the LOOGY, as he’s been deadly against LHB (.118/.167/.265) but is reaching the point with RHB (.410/.510/.744) that has left-handed hitters debating the merits of trying to switch-hit for the first time in their lives. Ignore his 8.15 ERA – Gobble’s usage is so bizarre that many of the runs charged to him are the fault of other relievers, and many of the runs that are his fault are charged to other relievers. But you can’t expect to get a full inning out of him, and by and large Hillman hasn’t tried.

Mahay, on the other hand, went two scoreless innings yesterday to get the win, the day after he went 1.1 scoreless to earn the hold. He has pitched more than an inning 15 times in his 32 appearances, which is almost unheard of in this day and age for a left-handed reliever. The reason for this is that he has almost no platoon split – for his career, RHB hit .249/.340/.394, LHB hit .229/.309/.391, and much of that OBP difference is explained by intentional walks. This year LHB are hitting much better than RHB, although that’s a sample size fluke.

One of the biggest criticism I have of the LaRussa-ization of bullpens is that so many relievers, particularly lefty relievers, have been pegged as one-sided specialists even though they have the ability to get both sides out. Mahay is too good a pitcher to be limited to one-batter appearances. Gobble is not. Hillman has correctly differentiated between the two, which is why Gobble is averaging 3.4 batters per appearance, and Mahay is averaging a fraction over 5.

I still believe there should be a spot on the roster for Neal Musser, who in Omaha the last two seasons has thrown 95 innings, allowed 64 hits and 32 walks, struck out 100, and has an ERA of 1.89. But Mahay has, more than anyone, kept the bullpen from falling apart since Nunez got hurt and Ramirez hit a rough patch. He’s justified his contract, and then some.

(Now, why the Royals just called up Horacio Ramirez instead of Musser…I have no answer for that.)

- 11-10 Kansas City, final.

What more can I say about Joakim Soria? I know he’s the Mexicutioner, and I don’t want to discourage poster Jack Jester from his hard-hitting reporting on the crime wave sweeping the nation, but I really would like to call him Mr. Sandman. Not the Sandman in the Mariano Rivera, “Enter Sandman” way, but more like the “Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream” way. He’s the guy who puts everyone into a tranquil sleep when he comes in, no matter how wild and crazy the game was before he showed up. Before Soria, would any Royals fan have felt safe in the ninth inning yesterday? Of course not. A seven-run comeback, both teams scoring in double digits, 30 hits, 13 walks, a game that took nearly four hours to play…why would anyone expect the ninth inning to be easy?

But when Soria came out for the ninth, were any of you worried? I know I wasn’t. And that’s what Soria provides – a sense of tranquility that hasn’t been seen in these parts in over ten years. He's not just ridiculously effective – he’s also ridiculously composed. On a day like Sunday, it's like he’s the only sane man in an insane world. He never appears to be caught up in the tension of the moment – he never even appears to be aware of the tension. I noticed this in his very first save opportunity, a week after his major league debut, when he struck out the final two Blue Jays to end the game. You’d expect a rookie in his fourth appearance to be a little pumped, a little psyched, a little stoked. Soria trudged off the mound and exchanged…no, make that he accepted high-fives from the other Royals. He was acknowledging that his teammates were happy for him, but he personally didn’t see what the fuss is about.

I know Mariano Rivera has the Sandman name locked up, but Mr. Sandman would have been perfect for Soria. But so long as he continues to make hitters look positively stupid every time he takes the mound, I suppose the Mexicutioner will do just fine.