Friday, July 18, 2008
A Report From the Park.
I moved to the Chicago area five summers ago, and if I can't live in Kansas City, living in a city with one of the AL Central rivals is the next best thing - I'm guaranteed 9 or 10 Royals games a season here. And if I lived in the city proper, it's a good bet I'd attend the majority of them. But I live in Naperville, which is a little over 20 miles from downtown as the crow flies. It's a 30 minute drive with no traffic...and in Chicago there's no such thing as no traffic. Weeknight games require that I leave the house at rush hour, which almost guarantees the drive will take over an hour.
So I only make it to two or three games a year. Amazingly, in the five years I've lived here I don't believe I've seen the Royals win a single time. I've attended most of the games in the press box, and I can tell you that I have no idea what the mood in the clubhouse is after the Royals win, because every time I've visited the clubhouse it's after a loss and all the reporters are asking the players what went wrong tonight. I'm like the Grim Reaper. Players see me and they make a beeline for the trainer's room.
I vividly remember this game early in the 2005 season, before it was clear that the Royals were the worst team in baseball and the White Sox were the best. Greinke was brilliant that night, the Royals got a home run from Graffanino in the 7th...and in the eighth, the White Sox scored two runs on walk, a hit by pitch, and then with two outs, Andy Sisco and Ambiorix Burgos combined to walk three consecutive batters to force in the tying and winning runs. Immediately after the game ended, one of the White Sox beat writers in the row in front of me stared at his scorecard for a long moment, puzzled, then said to the guy sitting next to him, "how the hell did we win this game?" I did not jump down, grab him by the throat, and explain to him, "because you're playing the Royals, you moron!" But I thought about it.
So I did not attend any of the games when the Royals were in town last month. But my brother Roukan moved to the Chicago area late last year, and had never been to the ballpark. Roukan is the sort of fan that would follow the Royals religiously if they just tossed him a bone. He's not a fair-weather fan - he hung with the team for most of the 1990s - but at some point the 90+ loss seasons started eating away at his soul, and he gave them up. Nowadays when I talk to him about Alex Gordon hitting a bomb or Joakim Soria making opposing hitters cry, he asks me very politely to save the Royals talk for when they have a winning record in August.
But tonight was a beautiful night for baseball, the weekend is upon us, and best of all, Zack Greinke was on the mound. If ever there was a chance to introduce him to the park, it was tonight. I slipped on my #23 jersey over my Mexicutioner T-shirt, picked my brother up and headed to the park. Traffic was a nightmare, and we weren't able to pull into the parking lot ($22, folks, and they cram us in like sardines) until about 7:15. By the time we got to the gate and found a scalper to buy tickets from, it was about 7:25. (What, you think I'm going to give the White Sox my hard-earned money? Comfort to the enemy? Never!)
We heard a few scattered cheers during our approach, but no wild yelling, no fireworks to signal a home run - and it's hard to hurt Greinke much without the homer. We figured the cheering was just there to mark the end of the top of the first inning.
And then we came out of the concourse and into the stands, and saw the score. It was 4-1, Chicago. There were two men on. There were no men out. And as we watched, Nick Swisher grounded one through the hole into left to load the bases. By the time we reached our seats, Joe Crede had poked another ball into left for a hit. Alexei Ramirez hit a sacrifice fly - the #9 hitter made the first out of the inning - but the Sox were already leading, 6-1.
We might as well have left the park at that point. Zack Greinke had somehow surrendered seven groundball singles in a row - interrupted only by a hit-by-pitch to the inveterate master of the form, Carlos Quentin. And this all happened in the blink of an eye - despite facing 11 batters in the first, Greinke threw just 28 pitches. The Sox had four runs on the board by the time Zack had thrown seven pitches.
And just as we were thinking that Zack ran into some bloody awful luck in the first inning, he hung a curve to Quentin leading off the second for a home run.
We trudged through the next few innings, watching as Billy Butler hit a drive to the deepest part of the park that was chased down by Swisher. We almost left the game in the sixth, but then Butler came up again and hit a towering flyball that was a no-doubter from the moment he connected. With the game within three runs, we thought we'd stick it out and see if the Royals could pull off the miracle, but then Jimmy Gobble decided he'd had enough of this whole "throw strikes" concept and put the game out of reach. We left during the seventh-inning stretch; I'm not a big fan of the Los Angeles approach to fandom, but at that point I felt that the best thing I could do for the team was to get as far away from them as possible.
I'm sorry, Zack. This game was all my fault.
I hope to see many of you on Sunday - just to confirm, you should find me directly underneath the little tower that stands outside the entrance to Gate 3 at 12:15. But if the Royals lose again on Sunday...that's it. I'm not going back there until the Royals figure out how to win in this Godforsaken ballpark. And until I find an exorcist.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Royals Today: The Starters.
And now, the starting pitchers…
- At the All-Star Break, Zack Greinke has pitched almost exactly as much as he pitched all of last season – he’s thrown 124 innings and faced 515 batters this year, compared to 122 and 507 last year. And the rest of his numbers are nearly identical as well:
- 36 walks last year, 36 walks this year;
- 106 Ks last year, 104 Ks this year;
- 52 runs allowed (50 earned) last year; 49 runs allowed (48 earned) this year;
- He was 7-7 last year; he’s 7-5 this year.
His ERA is a little better this year (3.48 to 3.69), but the league average is also better, and Zack’s ERA+ is a little worse this year (123 to 127).
The biggest difference is that Greinke allowed 12 homers last season, but 17 this year. On the other hand, he’s allowed just 22 doubles this year compared to 35 last year. His splits against him in 2008 are .252/.304/.422; last year they were .265/.319/.427. His OPS+ against was 96 last year, 95 this year. Any way you slice it, his performance has been identical.
Except for one massive difference: last year, Zack made 14 starts and 38 relief appearances, throwing 44% of his innings in relief. This year, he has been in the rotation all year. Use the same pitcher as a starter and then as a reliever, and there’s no comparison: almost every pitcher will be much more effective in relief. As a starter last season, Greinke let opposing hitters bat .292/.346/.494, but as a reliever they hit just .226/.282/.332.
So while on the surface it appears that Greinke hasn’t had a breakthrough season, he has. Four years ago I called him the future of pitching – the future has finally arrived. He ranks 7th in the league in VORP among pitchers. He’s the new Curt Schilling or Ben Sheets, a guy who can give you 220 innings a year with a terrific strikeout-to-walk ratio tempered only slightly by his propensity to give up homers. Unlike Schilling or Sheets, though, Greinke has a pristine health record (well, physical health record), and the time off two years ago probably helped his arm. His mechanics are considered to be excellent. Much like Posnanski recently wrote about DeJesus, we no longer have to dream about the promise of Zack Greinke’s future. The reality of his present is pretty damned good.
And oh, yeah: he’s still just 24 years old. I don’t care what else Dayton Moore does this season – if he doesn’t have Greinke signed to a long-term deal by Christmas, then his efforts as GM this season will earn a failing grade.
- I think the general perception of Brian Bannister is that he’s been a disappointment this season, with his 5.24 ERA, and a 6.34 ERA since April 30th. I can’t say I’m disappointed, because I expected this – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I wrote in this year’s Baseball Prospectus that Bannister was going to struggle in the short term as he made adjustments. The thing is, he knew he would have to make some adjustments, and made some of them before the season began – which led to his great April. He has struggled since, but there’s still a light at the end of the tunnel.
Bannister’s struggling this year because he’s giving up more homers (1.17 per 9 innings vs. 0.82 last year), and because he’s giving up more hits on balls in play (.293 BABIP this year, .262 last year). But here’s the thing: we knew – and Bannister knew – that his BABIP last year was probably not sustainable. And given that he’s a flyball pitcher who pitches to contact, his home run rate last season was probably unsustainable as well. Meanwhile, his walk rate is up, but just marginally (2.62 vs. 2.40 BB/9 innings), but his strikeout rate is up significantly (5.40 vs. 4.20 K/9 innings.)
Bannister was so successful last year in part because of an ability to keep hits and homers off the board that wasn’t really an ability at all. His performance hasn’t declined this year – it’s simply regressed. Meanwhile, the most important skill for a flyball pitcher is the ability to strike hitters out – and that’s a trait that Bannister has been overtly working on this season, to good effect. There was simply no way a pitcher with Bannister’s profile could survive as a major league starter with a strikeout rate of 4.2 per nine. With a strikeout rate of 5.4 per nine? Now he has some wiggle room.
Back in the spring, when I wrote about Bannister as part of my spring training countdown, I finished my writeup with this exhortation to him: “Brian, if you’re reading this, just remember that the numbers aren’t saying you can’t remain effective. What they’re saying is that you can’t remain effective the same way. So while your efforts to keep your BABIP at a low level are laudable, focusing your efforts on getting more strikeouts is going to yield a lot more bang for your buck.”
I don’t know if Banny reads this blog, though of course if there’s one player who does, it’s him. But it really doesn’t matter, because Bannister is the one player in all of baseball who was most likely to reach this conclusion on his own. He’s actively trying to miss bats, and he’s going through the inevitable transition period as he learns how to do that without upsetting the other parts of his game.
I don’t know if he’s going to be successful. But I do know that he couldn’t continue to be successful with his old approach. It’s going to be very, very interesting to see how he performs in the second half.
- I can’t get a handle on Luke Hochevar. One start, he’s a strike-throwing, groundball machine; the next start, he’s the second coming of Scott Elarton. In 108 career innings, he’s allowed just 10 homers and 26 doubles – his career slugging average against is an impressive .409 – but his strikeout-to-walk ratio is a decidedly unimpressive 60-to-44.
I believe in him for two reasons. The first is that sinker. His G/F ratio is 1.86, which ranks 11th among the 121 pitchers in the majors with 80+ innings this year. As Nate Silver discovered a few years ago when he was tweaking his PECOTA formula, a pitcher’s tendency to be a groundball or flyball pitcher is an innate tendency that almost never changes over time. Saying that Hochevar is a groundball pitcher is almost like saying he’s right-handed; it’s not what he does, it’s who he is. By contrast, a pitcher’s walk and strikeout rates are much more mutable. Hochevar may not increase his strikeout rate dramatically, but he doesn’t really have to. His strikeout rate isn’t fantastic, but Chien-Mien Wang has thrived with a strikeout rate that’s even lower. (Hochevar’s sinker doesn’t compare to Wang’s, mind you.) If Luke can cut his walks by a third and keep the ball down, he’ll be a #3 starter at least.
I’ve never seen a study look at the issue of whether groundball pitchers have a tendency to peak later in their careers, but my guess would be yes. Kevin Brown had a breakout season when he was 31; Derek Lowe broke out as a closer at age 27, and as a starter at age 29. Wang was still in the minors when he was Hochevar’s age. Even Brandon Webb, who was an instant sensation, was 24 as a rookie – and just a year earlier had been a hittable and lightly-regarded prospect.
So there’s reason to believe Hochevar still has some upside, which he’s more likely to reach because of my second reason for optimism: his intellect. I haven’t dealt with him directly, but colleagues of mine who have were deeply impressed with his intelligence and self-awareness. I’ve said this many times before, but to reiterate: intelligence is vital for a starting pitcher. Good pitching requires a plan. Smart pitchers are more likely to be able to formulate that plan, execute it, adjust it on the fly, take feedback from it, and tweak that plan for the next start. As much attention as Bannister has received for trying to alter his approach as the season has progressed, Hochevar has been doing the same thing, both this year and last. It will be a long time before we know whether his plan is working, but I’ll always bet on the guy who’s trying to improve over the guy who’s coasting on his talent.
And remember: the guy everyone thought the Royals should have taken with the #1 overall pick, Andrew Miller, has a 5.66 career ERA. More surprisingly, given that Miller was considered an extreme groundball pitcher in college, his career G/F ratio is lower (1.62) than Luke’s (1.89). Yeah, yeah, in hindsight they should have taken Lincecum. But in foresight, they might have made the right call.
- Gil Meche, like the three pitchers above, is supposed to be a pretty smart guy. (And yes, Greinke is smart. He may come across as a flake, but I’m convinced that’s partly an act – and on the mound he’s a veritable pitching savant.)
But we’re beginning to see glimpses of the reason why most Mariner fans threw their hands up in despair for much of Meche’s tenure in
As with Bannister, let’s break down his peripherals to see where the problem lies. Compared to last year, Meche’s strikeout rate has held (6.50 last year, 6.58 this year). His walk rate is up a little (2.58 to 3.14), his homers are up a smidge (0.92 to 1.05), and his BABIP is up almost imperceptibly (.298 to .302). Last year opponents hit .263/.314/.397 against Meche; this year they’re at .269/.326/.429. In all honesty, he’s not pitching that much worse than last season, certain not enough to explain a jump in his ERA of over a point.
The biggest difference between The Epic of 2007 and 2008 is that last year, Meche turned it up a notch with runners in scoring position, allowing a line of just .233/.298/.355. This year, he’s been hit hard in those situations, with a line of .286/.353/.490. That’s the difference between a guy who strands 65% of the baserunners he puts on (and makes the All-Star team) and a guy who strands 55% of his baserunners (and has a below-average ERA).
The difference in Meche hasn’t been his skill level, just his timing. From start to start you don’t know if you’re going to get the guy who strikes out 10 batters in a start (as he did June 15th) or the guy who strikes out no one (July 2nd). But for the season as a whole Meche hasn’t been all that much worse than last year. The problem is that a lot of us thought last year might have been a springboard to bigger and better things, possibly heralding a breakout to #1 starter status a la Jason Schmidt or Chris Carpenter at the same age.
That hasn’t happened, and that’s unlikely to change. But Meche has been exceedingly durable (he tied for the league lead in starts last year, and is tied again this year), and if nothing else, a pitcher who gives you 34 starts with even a league-average ERA is a heck of a commodity. Even at $11 million a year, Meche has positive trade value if it ever came down to that.
- I have precious little to say about Kyle Davies. He’s also just 24 – him, Hochevar, and Greinke were all born in a six-week span in 1983 – and he has the best ERA of his career so far, but 1) a 4.59 ERA is nothing to write home about, and 2) his ERA is a fluke. It seems like all the injuries along the way have robbed Davies of his fastball – he’s averaging barely a strikeout every other inning, and even in
- I haven’t had time to cover the minors in any detail this year, but suffice it to say that the Royals have as many quality starting pitching prospects as they’ve had in a long, long time. The overall depth of starting pitching in the organization, including the major league level, is probably the best it’s been since the Royals traded away Bret Saberhagen after the 1991 season. This was Dayton Moore’s stated priority when he was hired, and so far he’s come through in spades. Rosa has excellent stuff and the numbers finally reflect that this year; Dan Cortes is still the best pitching prospect in the system and he’s just 21; Blake Wood has a big-league future, if not in the rotation then certainly in the pen; and in the low minors Dan Duffy is proving last season was no fluke. That’s to say nothing of Julio Pimental (who pitched in the Futures Game) or Edward Cegarra, who’s starting for
Dayton Moore has tried to make a splash the last two winters by signing premium free agents to eight-figure contracts. This winter, I predict he’s going to make a splash by taking advantage of all this pitching depth to trade some of it for a middle-of-the-order hitter.
- Another housekeeping note: due to overwhelming demand, I’ve decided to move the ballpark meet-up at U.S. Cellular Park from Saturday to SUNDAY, July 20th. You don’t necessarily have to email me to confirm – just show up at the park as follows.
The game is at , and the plan is this: we’ll meet outside of Gate 3 at SHARP. At 12:30 SHARP, we’ll head to the ticket office and purchase the best tickets available for a group of our size. Looking at the White Sox’ attendance this year, the only Sunday game that sold out was against the Cubs, so I think we’re safe there. Worst case, we’ll find some scalpers and split up into groups. If you’re coming to the game but already have tickets, drop by and say hi.
I’ll be the tall pasty guy with the Royals cap and the white Zack Greinke jersey. If there’s any change in plans – inclement weather, the Sox graciously provide us with a luxury box, whatever – I’ll post it here, so check here before the game just to be safe.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Royals Today: All-Star Break Edition
As we reach the All-Star Break, let’s run down the entire offense while watching the Home Run Derby and wondering where Josh Hamilton ranks among the all the players in major league history in terms of raw talent:
- You know, if you could rip John Buck’s 2007 and 2008 season into halves and combine the good parts of each season, you’d have a hell of a player. Last year, Buck hit for good power (18 HR in 347 AB) but couldn’t hit for average (.222) and was terrible with men in scoring position (.179/.257/.326). This year, Buck is hitting for a better average (.251), he’s got the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career (a still sub-optimal 50 to 22), and he’s hitting .361/.408/.574 with runners in scoring position. (By the way, that’s just another data point against the claim that clutch hitting is a skill and not random variation.) But he’s hit just 5 home runs.
I believe in the theory that when a young player shows a particular ability in one season, he possesses that talent – players don’t hit for a lot of power in their mid-20s and then never hit for power again. Mark Teahen is doing his best to prove me wrong, but in Buck’s case, this year is the fluke season – he’s hit for power in every season but this one. Maybe he’s sacrificing some power for contact, but it’s worth noting that his rate of doubles (
- Ross Gload’s been on quite the tear of late, and his season marks are up to .277/.327/.336. That’s still miles from good. I’ve made this point before: Gload is a terrific bench player, because he can be used as both a pinch-hitter (he hits line drives, rarely strikes out, and his career splits against LHP and RHP are almost identical) and as a defensive replacement. He’s not remotely a starting first baseman. I know Moore values Defense Uber Alles, but at some point we have to punt on this season, and when that point is reached Butler needs to play first base and Gload needs to hit the bench.
- I have probably written less about Mark Grudzielanek than anyone else on the roster. What’s there to say? He’s a pro’s pro, perhaps the smartest defensive player on the team, a guy who can hit .300 by punching the ball to right field in his sleep. I was skeptical when the Royals signed him, because 36-year-old second basemen are not exactly growth stocks. But Grudzielanek has actually improved his numbers every year with the Royals. I think now is the right time to move him, and there’s at least a 50/50 chance he’ll be in another uniform in three weeks. So let’s acknowledge him for what he’s done for the Royals, giving the team a rock of stability in the middle infield for the better part of three seasons. As free agent signings go, he’s been the most pleasant surprise since the Royals inked Greg Gagne.
- Alex Gordon, I’ve sort of covered. One relatively unnoticed development: Splash already has nearly as many walks this year (39) as last (41). Plate discipline and power are highly correlated, though which comes first is a chicken-or-the-egg argument: you’re more likely to hit for power if you work the count, but you’re more likely to get pitched carefully if you’re a power threat. In Gordon’s case, we know he’s got the power; if he continues to get into favorable counts, eventually the 3-1 cookies will come.
- In the live-ball era (since 1920), there are 23 members of the 160-160 club: players who have hit .160 or less with 160 at-bats or more. The Royals have been honored with the presence of such a member for two straight seasons – Jason Larue (.148, 169 AB) last year, and Tony Pena Jr. (.155, 181 AB) this year.
Pena’s not just hitting .155, though – he also has just five walks all year, putting his OBP at just .176. If Pena doesn’t bat again this year – we can only hope – his OBP will be the lowest of any player with 130 or more at-bats in the live-ball era. I’m amused to see that the player whose record he’s trying to break with a .178 mark is Angel Salazar – yes, that Angel Salazar, the guy who torpedoed the Royals’ pennant hopes in 1987. (Salazar actually set the record with the Expos in 1984; by comparison, his .212 OBP in ’87 is almost Bondsian.)
Incidentally, if we lower the threshold to 120 at-bats, Pena’s .176 OBP would improve to third-worst - thanks to Gaylord Perry and Robin Roberts. Six pitchers since 1920 have had between 120 and 130 at-bats - four of them had better OBPs than Pena has.
And remember, Pena’s OBP is only as high as it is because he's been intentionally walked – twice. At least he’s a good bunter. Oh wait…
- Mike Aviles is hot again – 14-for-
In their history, guess how many times the Royals’ shortstop hit 12 homers? Twice – Angel Berroa’s Rookie of the Year season, and Jay Bell’s amazing single year in
In 36 games,
- More people seem ready to give up on Billy Butler than on Alex Gordon. Let’s take a step back, everyone.
- Jose Guillen has been a swirling vortex of suck for six weeks, and he’s been an unstoppable line-drive machine for six weeks. Over the last three weeks he’s back to SVOS (.167/.214/.212 in his last 17 games), and I’m thinking “Sybil” might be a good nickname for him. But after half a season, the Royals have spent $12 million on a leftfielder with an OPS+ of 98. He must have a hell of an impact in the clubhouse.
- I’m happy to say that in Baseball Prospectus I wrote of DeJesus, “Expect a power spike into the 13-17 homer range this season.” The problem is that I wrote that in BP last year – before David had the worst season of his career. But as I wrote in this year's book, his peripherals from last season were unchanged – his secondary skills were intact, and he didn’t strike out any more than usual – so he was likely to bounce back. But back in March I wasn’t expecting a career year out of him. Hell, at the end of May I wasn't expecting a career year out of him - on May 26th he was hitting .270/.329/.365, and some idiot was advocating trading him to the Cubs for Felix Pie and Ronny Cedeno.
David’s having a nice little year, though really the only difference between this season and 2005-06 is that he’s hitting a few more homers and a few less doubles. DeJesus straddles the line between quality regular and minor star, the type of player that falls apart around age 32. That’s still four years away, and coincidentally he’s signed through 2011. I think he’s elevated himself from part of the problem to part of the solution.
Incidentally, it was widely reported that DeJesus’ walk-off homer against Brandon Morrow on Saturday was the first walk-off homer for the Royals since Alberto Castillo in 2005. This is true, but the difference is that Castillo’s homer came with the game tied. As was Carlos Beltran’s walk-off homer on Opening Day 2004 (although that game gets an honorable mention since Mendy Lopez had already tied the game with a homer.) The Royals had two walk-offs in 2003, four in 2002, three in 2001 – but all came with the game tied.
The last time the Royals had a walk-off home run that turned defeat into victory? Yep – the “What is going on?” walk-off, courtesy Rey Sanchez, on
The last time the Royals got a walk-off home run when they were losing and down to their final out came in similar circumstances. They were losing by a run going to the bottom of the ninth, the opponent got two quick outs, walked a batter, and then their flame-throwing closer faced the Royals’ centerfielder, who hit the game-ending homer.
The closer was Goose Gossage. The hitter was Amos Otis. The year was 1978.
If what DeJesus did on Saturday seems remarkable, that’s because it was. The Royals snatched victory away from the jaws of defeat on a walk-off homer with one out to go for the first time in over 30 years.
And even THEN there’s a caveat: A.O.’s home run was an inside-the-parker. (Man, I’d love to see the video of that.) It wasn’t a walk-off so much as a run-off. The Royals last walk-off homer when down to their final out was on July 22nd, 1973, when Otis hit a three-run homer off Eduardo Rodriguez, immediately after Cookie Rojas reached on an error by Don Money that should have ended the game.
That was the team’s last do-or-die walk-off homer, and until Saturday, their only one – ever. I’m glad I was watching the game on Saturday, because I had never seen a Royal player do what DeJesus did. I couldn’t have: it had never before happened in my lifetime.
A.O.’s walk-off came two months after the Royals were no-hit for the first time. DeJesus’ walk-off came two months after the Royals were no-hit for the second time. Spooky.
(And as if it needed to be said: God Bless Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference.com.)
- For all that Mark Teahen could be, what he is is the epitome of average. His career OPS+ is 99. He has played third base and right field in his career, two positions in the middle of the defensive spectrum. He has average power (14 homers per 162 games), average plate discipline (58 walks), average speed (11 steals), average, uh, average (.270). He plays roughly average defense. He’s almost 27 years old, the classic midpoint of a player’s career. The only areas in which he’s decidedly not average is his baserunning ability – he has averaged 33 doubles and 8 triples per 162 games, which is a testament to his baserunning instincts more than his foot speed.
Strange stat: he grounded into 23 double plays last year, but just four so far this year, even though he’s hitting groundballs at the same rate (1.85 G/F last year, 1.81 this year).
- Miguel Olivo has done what he always does: swing at everything (53 Ks, 7 walks), occasionally connect (9 HRs in 196 AB), and crush lefties (.293/.349/.638). The most interesting question for me in the second half is whether he’ll play well enough, and often enough, to merit Type B free agency status at the end of the year.
Two years ago the Royals signed David Riske to a two-year contract, but with a player option to leave after just one year. I thought it was a foolish concession at the time, but that’s because at the time I didn’t realize that if the player opted out he would still be treated as a true free agent if he signed with another team – meaning the Royals would get compensation if his status warranted it. Riske pitched well enough to merit Type B status, so when he opted out, the Royals got a supplemental first-round pick for their troubles, and used that pick on Michael Montgomery, who at last check was pitching very well down in rookie ball. That’s a nice payoff: for $3 million the Royals got a fine year of middle relief and the 40th pick in the draft.
This wasn’t an accidental provision, because this winter
- The most important statistic for Esteban German is this: 93. As in, he’s had 93 plate appearances all year. The notion that he’s washed up or should be released on the basis of 93 plate appearances is laughable. He’s been a victim of too much depth at second base, but with Callaspo out indefinitely and Grudzielanek likely to be traded at some point, he’s likely to get more playing time in the second half. This is the same guy with a .380+ OBP the last two years – he still has some value.
- Callaspo has bigger things to worry about than his performance on the field in the first half. Assuming he gets his life in order, he still has upside as a potential starting second baseman. He has lived up to his reputation for making contact – he’s whiffed just 9 times in 100 at-bats – but he needs to hit for at least a smidgeon of power. He’s only 25. I’d still rather have him than Billy Buckner, who has a 4.73 ERA in Triple-A Tucson this season.
I’ll try to get to the pitchers soon, but for now, tying up some loose ends…
- A few days ago I received a card in the mail from Rob Neyer – he had been doing some spring cleaning (in July) and found a few Royals baseball cards I might enjoy.
The first one was clearly a special card, as a piece of fabric was tucked inside. The back of the card gave the story away: “Congratulations! You have just received an authentic MLB All-Star-Worn Jersey Card of Ken Harvey from 2005 Topps Baseball Series
And all this time, I thought Rob was a friend.
- I’ll finish up with this: I’m planning to attend the Royals-White Sox tilt at U.S. Cellular Park this Saturday, July 19th. Game time is . If you live in the Chicagoland area and want to join me at the park, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bonus points if you’re willing to do the heavy lifting in terms of organizing the outing; Sox games on Saturday nights sometimes sell out, so we may need to purchase tickets ahead of time. No guarantees, but if we get a half dozen or more people interested in attending the game, we’ll try to set something up. You don’t have to be a Royals fan to join us…but you have to be good at pretending to be a Royals fan.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Gordon: Splash or Flash (In-the-Pan)?
About 10 days ago I was on the radio with Kevin Kietzman and Danny Clinkscale, and towards the end of the interview the talk turned towards Alex Gordon, who for the second consecutive year is failing to live up to expectations. Two years ago Gordon was the Minor League Player of the Year, the year after he was named the College Player of the Year. He was the #1 prospect in the land the year after he was the #2 draft pick in the land. Playing for
For two months last year, it looked like the Alex Gordon of 2006 had been secretly replaced by Folger’s
But here we are, past the halfway point of Gordon’s sophomore season, and nothing has changed. His final numbers last season, even with the atrocious start, were .247/.314/.411; he’s hitting .250/.333/.406 this season. Given that offense is down significantly in the
So the question is: should we officially be worried about Gordon now? As Clinkscales asked me on the air, how many times has a player who had TWO disappointing seasons to start his career gone on to become a superstar?
Among my many talents is not, unfortunately, the ability to think quickly on my feet, particularly in front of a live audience. While I came up with a weak answer by bringing up Mike Schmidt as a third baseman who struggled mightily as a rookie before having a breakthrough sophomore years, I couldn’t think of a single player who, like Gordon, played every day right out of the chute, but didn’t have the light bulb go on until season #3.
But this might not simply have been a problem with coming up with the right answer in ten seconds or less. Because even afterwards, I still couldn't come up with a list of players who had immense potential but took a little longer than usual to reach it – the kinds of players you want Gordon to be lumped in with when we look back at his career in 15 years. So I decided to research it.
Keep in mind, I’m looking for a player whose trajectory is very similar to Gordon’s; plenty of star players take years to reach their potential. Someone like Nate McLouth, for instance, is having a breakthrough season in his fourth attempt, but he’s a totally different player – a 25th-round pick, an undersized guy who broke into the majors as a fourth outfielder type but never go the chance to play every day until this season. (By the way, why has no one made the comparison of McLouth to Brady Anderson yet? Both are speedy white guys who showed some secondary skills but didn’t hit much as part-time players, McLouth for three years, Anderson for four.
So I devised a list of players who:
1) had their rookie seasons between 1961 and 2000;
2) were 23 years old as a rookie;
3) batted over 400 times in their rookie season;
4) hit between .240 and .265;
5) had an OBP between .300 and .340;
6) slugged between .360 and .460.
I ended up with a total of 17 players, the most recent of whom being Carlos Febles, of all people. (Carlos the Lesser hit .256/.336/.411 as a rookie, though keep in mind that was at the peak of the Juiced Ball/Bat/Body era.) Let’s split those 17 players into four groups.
Group 1: Not that good to begin with.
Buck Rodgers hit .258/.309/.372 as a rookie catcher for the LA Angels in 1962, and that would prove to be the best season of his career. Byron Browne was a rookie outfielder for the Cubs in 1963, and hit .243/.316/.427. Over the next year he would bat just 85 times, for three different teams.
Rick Schu hit .252/.318/.373 as the Phillies’ third baseman in 1985, quite an accomplishment for a guy who was signed as a non-drafted free agent out of high school, but he would never bat more than 300 times in a season again. Febles started battling injuries his sophomore season and was never the same.
Group 2: Takeoff in Year Two. Sort of.
Bill Melton really doesn’t fit well into the three other groups, but he’s not a great fit here either. He was a rookie third baseman for the White Sox in 1969, and hit .255/.326/.433. After hitting 23 homers as a rookie, he would hit 33 each of the next two years, and after the 1971 season had to be considered one of the best young players in the game. But he got hurt and missed much of the 1972 season, gave the Sox three good years from 1973 to 1975, then was out of the game within two years, his career over just after his 32nd birthday. I’m not sure what the story was here, to be honest. Melton had a short peak, but it was a pretty nice peak.
Larry Walker hit .241/.326/.434 as a rookie for the Expos in 1990, but technically he wasn’t a rookie because he had spent an entire year on the DL while in the minors, and in those days time spent on the DL counted as service time. As a result of
Group 3: The plodders. The list you don’t want Gordon to wind up on, the guys who showed promise their first two seasons but never built on it.
Dick Green was a rookie second baseman for the
Jim Lefebvre hit .250/.337/.369 as a rookie second baseman for the Dodgers in 1965, which was enough to win him Rookie of the Year honors. In 1966 hit .274/.333/.460 with 24 homers, making the All-Star team. But that would be his high-water point; Lefebvre continued to hit around league average for the next five years, but after playing second base his first two seasons the Dodgers started jerking him around, having him play third base some, and after a poor season in 1972 his playing career came to a sudden end at age 30. His contributions to baseball were far from over, as he would become a long-time coach, manage for three teams, and sire an occasionally self-righteous broadcaster. (Seriously, Ryan – tone down the rhetoric a little, okay?)
George Wright was a fourth-round pick of the Rangers in 1977, and was a rookie outfielder for them in 1982, when he hit .264/.305/.377; the following season he played in every game, hit .276/.321/.424, and even received a tenth-place MVP vote. He would hit .243, .190, and .202 the next three years, and his career was over. I must confess I’ve never even heard of this guy, although that may be because when I think of George Wright, I think of the guy who, you know, helped invent professional baseball.
Gabe Kapler was a late-round find for the Tigers, who drafted him in the 57th round in 1995. He hit .245/.315/.447 as a rookie in 1999, then was traded to
Group 4: The late bloomers.
Here’s the important list, the one that we hope Gordon can be added to in the future. In chronological order:
Lou Brock hit .263/.319/.412 as a rookie centerfielder for the Cubs in 1962. In 1963, he moved to rightfield and hit .258/.300/.382. He stole 40 bases in those two seasons – combined. In 1964, he was hitting .251/.300/.340 on the morning of June 15th, when the Cubs declared it official – he was a dud. Brock found himself in a Cardinals uniform that night, having been packaged in a six-player trade. The Cubs wouldn’t regret this trade for at least a few weeks. Brock hit .348/.387/.527 the rest of the season, and the Cards would win the World Series that fall. Brock stole 43 bases in 1964; starting in 1965 he would steal 50 or more bases for 12 straight years, culminating with a record 118 steals (at age 35!) in 1974, and maintained an OPS+ of 107 or better in all 12 years. He would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985. On the flip side, Ernie Broglio did win 8 games for the Cubs in his career. (He also lost 19.)
As much as I like the Lou Brock comparison for Gordon, I like the next one even better. If the amateur draft had been instituted a year earlier, Bobby Murcer would have been an almost sure-fire first-round pick. He was dubbed the next Mickey Mantle from the day he signed, as he had the misfortune of hailing from the same state (
Von Hayes was a seventh-round pick of the Indians in 1979, and made the majors for a cameo in 1981, hitting .257/.346/.394 in 109 at-bats. As a rookie outfielder in 1982 he hit .250/.310/.389, with 14 homers and 32 steals. Hayes was nonetheless so highly regarded that after the season the Phillies traded five different players for Hayes straight-up. (We can finally put that trade to rest – one of the five was Julio Franco.) Hayes hit just .265/.337/.370 in his first year in
Ron Gant was a fourth-round pick of the Braves in 1983, and in 1988 hit .259/.317/.439 as their rookie second baseman (yes, second baseman), finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. (It’s always fun to remember where some sluggers started their major league careers. Gary Sheffield was the Brewers’ shortstop once upon a time. Danny Tartabull played 24 games at shortstop for
Craig Biggio, like Gordon, was a first-round pick, and two years after he was drafted he was in the Astros’ lineup as their catcher, hitting .257/.336/.402 as a rookie. He hit .276/.342/.348 as a sophomore, his homers dropping from 13 to 4. You know the rest of the story – after three years behind the dish he moved to second base, he started to hit for power at age 27, and from 1994 to 1998 he was one of the four or five best players in baseball. He was never the same after that, but held on long enough for 3000 hits and the inevitable parade in
Biggio’s teammate Luis Gonzalez was taken in the fourth round in 1988, and hit .254/.320/.433 for the Astros in 1991. He slumped to .243/.289/.385 as a sophomore, and Vegas had taken the odds that he would still be in active in 2008 off the board. Gonzalez hit .300/.361/.457 in his third season, and was a good solid player for the next five years, but let’s be honest: no one saw what was coming. After the 1998 season the Tigers traded him straight up for Karim Garcia, for God’s sake. From 1999 to 2003, Gonzalez hit .314 and averaged 33 homers and 87 walks a year. He won’t go to the Hall of Fame, but if he was inducted, he’d be far from the worst outfielder there.
Ray Durham was a fifth-round pick of the White Sox in 1990, was called up early in the 1995 season and hit .257/.309/.384 as a rookie. As a sophomore, he hit .275/.350/.406, which was an improvement but still not anything to write home about in that era; his OPS+ went from 83 to 95. As a junior, he hit .271/.337/.382, but his durability and speed still made him an asset at the position. Then in 1998 he turned his game up a notch; he tacked on about 15 extra-base hits and 20 walks a season, and had an OPS+ above league-average for nine straight years. He was basically the prototype for Orlando Hudson, with a better bat and more speed but a much worse glove. He’s had a heck of a career.
When I started this study, I didn’t expect to analyze every single player that compared to Gordon – I figured I’d just find two or three guys who went on to greatness and see if Gordon’s profile fit theirs or not. What I found surprised me, in a good way. For one, I would have expected to find dozens of guys who had a rookie season similar to Gordon’s, given the wide parameters I set up – instead I found just 17. But what’s really remarkable is how many of those players went on to great career, even though nearly all of them did not have a breakout season in their second year. Just two out of the 17 had a star-caliber sophomore year, and both examples (Melton and
But if you can simply follow up a solid rookie season with a roughly equivalent performance as a sophomore at ages 23 and 24, the odds are still very good that you will eventually go on to have a very fine career. Eliminate the first two groups, and we have 11 players who, like Gordon, have followed up their rookie seasons with more of the same.
Four of those 11 would go on to have disappointing seasons – Green, Lefebvre, Wright, and Kapler. Green and Lefebvre were both second baseman, and there is a long chain of evidence that second basemen do not develop as well as players at other positions.
George Wright really doesn’t belong on this list; he was never well-regarded to the best of my knowledge, and to my mind resembles Darryl Motley more than Alex Gordon. That leaves Kapler, who serves as a cautionary tale that there are no sure things with prospects.
But even Kapler was a 57th-round pick. Gordon’s pedigree is impeccable, which puts him in with the guys in group four. Biggio was a first-rounder, and Murcer would have been. Brock might have been; he was a black player who attended a traditionally black school in 1960, so he might have fallen in the draft through no fault of his own. The other draft-eligible players all went between the fourth and seventh rounds, although all of them were signed out of high school – all of them may have been first-round picks if, like Biggio, they had gone to college instead.
If there’s a red flag here, it’s that the parameters I selected are slightly favorable to Gordon – he hit .247/.314/.411, which is about the midpoint of the range I selected, but he played in
Based purely on his rookie performance, Gordon’s a little out of his depth. But factor in his track record, his pedigree, his second-half performance…I don’t think it’s incorrect to lump him in with these other guys.
Seven of the 11 players would go on to have stellar careers; two of the 11 went on to be Hall of Famers. Gonzalez hit his stride late in his career – it does the Royals no good if Gordon becomes a perennial All-Star in his 30s – but the other six guys would be named to an All-Star team or finish in the top
I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot better about Gordon than I did when I started this study. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in what a player isn’t doing – in Gordon's case, hitting left-handers – that we overlook what he is doing. Gordon isn’t hitting lefties (.193/.273/.220), but by the same token, he’s hitting right-handed pitching very well (.276/.358/.490). I think batting him third against LHP is nuts – Hillman finally seems to agree – but against RHP, I think batting him third is wholly appropriate. Gordon is striking out at the same rate he did last year, but his walk rate is up almost 50%. When he gets ahold of one, he still hits the ball farther than any Royals hitter from the left side since George Brett.
Honestly, I think what bothers Royals fans more than Gordon’s performance is his attitude. When a guy with Gordon’s demeanor is playing well, he’s praised for being stoic, for not letting himself get swept up by the highs and lows in the game from day to day. When he’s not playing well, he gets ripped for not caring. But this is something we simply can’t know as fans. Sure, it looks bad when Gordon takes three straight pitches for strikes in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game, then trudges back to the dugout, as he did on Tuesday. But it’s easy to be fooled by the perception that someone is trying hard, when in reality we have no idea who’s working out in the weight room after the game, who’s spending the extra time working on defensive drills, who’s eating right and getting eight hours of sleep every night. Castigate Gordon for his work ethic if you think he deserves it – just don’t rip him because of the look on his face.
A few years ago the Royals had another player that was immensely talented, but also very quiet in the clubhouse, a stoic personality who didn’t seem to get overly upset when things didn’t go well, and it led a lot of people into thinking that he just didn’t care. It didn’t matter when Carlos Beltran won Rookie of the Year honors, but when he hit like crap as a sophomore and missed half the season with an injury, the whispers started. They hit a crescendo when Beltran refused to report to the team’s spring training camp to rehab – remember that?
And for the first half of 2001, he hit as badly as he did as a sophomore. On June 24th, he was hitting .249/.294/.372, with seven homers all year. On June 20th, I brilliantly wrote in a Rob & Rany dialogue that “even I’m beginning to give up on” Beltran. (Ten days later, after Beltran had a six-game stretch when he went 11-for-23 with five homers, I asked for forgiveness, pointing out that Beltran had changed his stance back to his 1999 form and that had made all the difference. Hey, don't tell me I don't know which way the wind is blowing.)
But halfway through his third season, Carlos Beltran looked like a bust, like the rookie hype was a mirage. Three months later he would finish with the best season of his career, and his superstar projection was back on track, a projection he has mostly justified since. But even years later, when Beltran had a terrible first season with the Mets, people close to the team argued that Beltran couldn’t handle the pressure New York. But just because a player doesn’t provide a good quote or throw his helmet after a bad at-bat doesn’t mean that they aren’t working their ass off to get better.
So let’s lay off Gordon for now. I still think the best is yet to come.
(Please tell me this makes up for my long absence, right?)