Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Royals Today: The Relievers.

On to the bullpen, although first I need to back up and discuss Joey Gathright, who somehow got left out of my review of the hitters.

Gathright looked like he might be ready for prime time last season. He hit .307 and drew some walks, and it’s almost impossible for a guy with a .371 OBP and blazing speed to not have value. This year, he’s essentially the same player – he strikes out about every 7 at-bats and walks about half that often, he’s still hitting the ball on the ground more than 75% of the time – but the hits aren’t falling in. He has seven more at-bats than last year, but 11 fewer hits. A .300 hitter with speed can play every day with no semblance of power; a .250 hitter can’t.

The difference between last year’s .307 and this year’s .256 can probably be chalked up to random variance. The problem is that it’s more likely that last year was the fluke than this year. He’s a career .263 hitter, which is pretty unimpressive for a left-handed hitter who’s one of the fastest players in the major leagues. Someone like Ichiro Suzuki pads his average with a ton of infield singles, but the difference is that Suzuki also occasionally gets hits on balls that, you know, reach the outfield.

Gathright gets a bunch of infield singles too – and that’s all he gets. Most of the time he doesn’t even bother trying hitting the ball anywhere else – he tries to bunt for a hit more than anyone else in the league (last year only Willy Taveras bunted more often.) Only once in his career has he managed more than 10 extra-base hits in a season, and this year he has all of three. I mean, the guy has seven triples in his career of over 1100 at-bats. Tony Pena Jr. has eight triples in just over 700 at-bats – and Pena has neither speed nor power. Any ball down the right field line or in either gap is a potential triple with Gathright’s speed, so the fact that he has only seven of them gives you some idea of how rarely he hits the ball that far.

And if you have no power to speak of, at some point the opponents are simply going to dare you to hit the ball over them. It’s not just that the infield plays shallow on Gathright – the outfield can play at almost Texas Leaguer-depth. The complete lack of power also inhibits Gathright’s ability to draw walks.

Last season, Joey spent half the year in Omaha and in 60 games drew 43 walks and had a .457 OBP. But in the majors he’s drawn just 36 walks in 470 AB the last two seasons, because major league pitchers are going to throw strikes when they know the hitter can’t make them pay if a pitch catches too much of the strike zone. Plus, it’s hard to draw walks when you’re bunting on the first pitch. Gathright has seen just 3.4 pitches per plate appearance this year, down from 3.52 last season and roughly 3.75 before that. I thought he could become another Gary Pettis, who hit just .236 for his career but drew enough walks that he had a .332 OBP, but even Pettis had a twinge of power to keep pitchers honest. Gathright doesn’t. (Although Pettis struck out a ridiculous amount – he averaged 131 whiffs per 162 games – for a guy with no power. What a weird player he was.)

Gathright’s been terrific on the basepaths this year, but he can’t use his speed if he’s not on the bases, and he’s not going to get on base often enough to be effective if the only threat he poses is the threat of a six-hopper to the shortstop. He’s well-cast in the role of fourth outfielder, but that’s all he is.

Moving on…

Is it safe to say that Joakim Soria, barring an unexpected collapse, will finish with one of the best seasons by a reliever in Royals history? Consider this: only three times in Royals history has a reliever pitched 30 innings or more with a WHIP (walks + hits per inning pitched) of less than one: Jeff Montgomery in 1989, Dan Quisenberry in 1983, and Soria. That’s Soria last year, when his WHIP was .942, behind only Quiz’s .928 mark in 1983, the year he should have won the Cy Young Award. (In Quiz’s defense, twice he would have had WHIPs under 1 if you don’t count intentional walks.)

You know what Soria’s WHIP is this year? .705. Just three relievers in history have had a lower WHIP in a season with 70+ innings – Dennis Eckersley (in 1989 and 1990), Eric Gagne (2003), and J.J. Putz last year. (Although Mariano Rivera has a .677 WHIP this season himself.)

Soria is on pace for 42 saves, which won’t match the record of 45 shared by Monty and Quiz, but is awfully close – and pitching for a much worse team that those two toiled for. And Soria’s ERA of 1.43 would be the second-best by a reliever in team history, behind Montgomery’s 1.37 mark in 1989. (Little-known fact: Montgomery has the lowest single-season ERA of any AL pitcher with 90 or more innings in the live-ball era.)

Objectively, Soria’s on pace for the third-best season by a Royals’ reliever, behind Quisenberry’s 1983 (139 IP, 1.94 ERA, 45 saves) and Montgomery’s 1989 (92 IP, 1.37 ERA). Soria has been better than everyone on an inning-for-inning basis – but he’s only on pace for 71 innings. Such is the role of the modern closer. The four pitchers who led the two leagues in saves in 2006 and 2007 averaged less than 64 innings. Twenty years ago, the four pitchers who led in saves in 1986-87 averaged over 98 innings.

It’s possible that modern closers are even more dominant than their predecessors on an inning-for-inning basis, but certainly not enough to make up for the massive drop in their innings. Which once again raises the question: would the Royals be better off with Soria in the rotation?

I don’t have a clear answer. Soria certainly has a starter’s repertoire. His personality is perfectly suited for a closer, but not in the sense that he gets all fired up to throw ridiculous heat for an inning, but in the sense that he never lets his emotions get the better of him. That personality certainly wouldn’t be a detriment in the rotation.

My biggest concern with a move to the rotation is simply that as dominant as Soria is, he doesn’t throw incredibly hard – typically topping out around 91 mph. His effectiveness stems from his diverse repertoire, some deception in his delivery, and above all his tremendous command. Those things should all translate well as a starter – but his velocity is likely to drop a little, and you have to ask yourself, how dominant can he be if he’s throwing 87-88? Greg Maddux won a bunch of Cy Young awards that way, but it’s not the typical formula for an ace.

I’d like to see the Royals experiment with Soria in the rotation before year’s end, now that it’s clear the Royals are not playing for 2008. I highly doubt this will happen, though. All I ask is that if Moore and Hillman are committed to Soria as their closer, that they use him like a 1980s style closer, not a 2000s style loser. I’m not talking about Goose Gossage or Dan Quisenberry, guys who threw 120+ innings a season and would come in to put out a fire with the bases loaded in the 7th. (Although that would be nice.) I’m just asking that they bring Soria in for the 8th inning on occasion, that they try to get 90-100 innings out of him in a season instead of just 70.

Soria averages just 15.5 pitches an inning, in large part because he faces so few batters per inning. The major league average is somewhere north of 17 pitches an inning – so right there, you can see that 90 innings for Soria is the equivalent of barely 80 innings for an average reliever in terms of the wear and tear on his arm. Soria doesn’t have a maximum-effort delivery and doesn’t appear to be at high-risk for arm injury. He is a Tommy John survivor, but on the other hand guys who come back from TJ surgery tend to have a “honeymoon” period of about 5 years when they’re very unlikely to suffer another elbow injury.

Hillman has shown some willingness to use Soria for two innings – he’s done so four times this year – but twice Soria came into pitch in a tie game in extra innings, and one of the time he blew the save in the 9th but came back to pitch the 10th after the Royals took the lead again. Only once all year has Soria come into pitch in a save situation before the 9th inning – May 31st against the Indians, after he hadn’t pitched in three days. He’s pitched the 8th inning three other times, but all three games were games the Royals were losing badly and Soria just needed some work.

Hillman has asked Soria to get more than three outs for a save just once all year. That’s a ridiculous misuse of resources. I wrote about this Sunday, but if Hillman didn’t use him for a six-out save then, he’s never going to use him. Hillman’s been pretty good about using Soria in tie games, something a lot of managers won’t do – he’s done so four times – but until he lets go of the reins a little and uses Soria in the 8th inning, he’s not going to get maximum value out of his closer.

One of the biggest arguments used against the idea of moving Soria to the rotation is that it’s been so long that the Royals have had a good closer, and the psychological impact of blowing those 9th-inning leads for the last 10 years can’t be understated. This is true – the Royals, from 1996 through 2005, had a .386 winning percentage in one-run games. That’s not just bad, folks. That’s the worst record over a ten-year span by a team in major league history.

But my reply to that is this: the problem with the Royals in the late 1990s and early 2000s wasn’t that they didn’t have any good closers. The problem is that they didn’t have any good relievers.

Consider this little fact. What percentage of teams have at least one reliever on their roster with an ERA under 3? I’d say the vast majority of teams do – relievers vary so much from year to year that even marginal relievers will occasionally have an ERA in the 2s purely by chance. And for most of their history, the Royals did. If you define “reliever” as anyone who made 40 or more relief appearances, the Royals had a “good reliever” on their roster every year from 1981 to 1994. Until 1995, they never went more than two seasons without a good reliever – and only once (1979-1980) did they go more than one season without a good reliever.

Until 1995. Starting that season, the Royals didn’t have a single good reliever on their roster…for 12 straight years. You would think, in one of those years, they’d have a reliever who lucked into a good year, or whose teammates bailed him out a few times to keep his ERA down, or hell, someone who just gave up a ton of unearned runs to make his ERA artificially low.

I mean, for God’s sake, the Rockies, playing in the best hitters’ park ever created, have never gone three straight years without a good reliever. The Royals went an even dozen. With the kind help of my Baseball Prospectus colleague, Bil Burke, I can tell you that in the divisional era (1969-onwards), the Royals’ stretch of 12 consecutive years without a reliever with a sub-3 ERA is twice as long as the next-longest stretch. Four teams went six straight years without a “good reliever” – the 1972-77 Angels, 1982-87 Twins, 1993-98 Twins, and 1999-2004 Devil Rays. No team had a stretch of longer than six years – except our boys in blue.

Last year, finally, the Royals broke that streak. Soria had a 2.48 ERA, and he didn’t lead the team; David Riske had a 2.45 ERA. Jimmy Gobble’s 3.02 ERA (little known fact: 2007 was the last time Gobble recorded an out) was the third-best ERA in the bullpen – and the third-best ERA of any Royals reliever in 13 years.

This season, Soria is on pace for the first sub-2 ERA since Steve Farr in 1990 – and so is Ron Mahay. Ramon Ramirez had his ERA peek just over 3 after surrendering his first run of the season, but if he throws a scoreless inning his next time out his ERA will drop back into the 2s. Leo Nunez should get to 40 appearances if he stays healthy the rest of the season, and his ERA is 1.69. The Royals could conceivably end up with four relievers with an ERA under three. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if Soria were moved to the rotation, the Royals have three different candidates to replace him that have all pitched better than any other closer the Royals have used since the strike.

So this argument that the Royals can’t afford to move Soria because it’s been so long since they had an ace closer, and they shouldn’t mess with a good thing…I don’t buy it. The Royals have more quality options in their bullpen than they have since I was a teenager. There are a number of compelling arguments why they should leave Soria alone, but the fear of what happens to the ninth inning should not be one of them.

Reviewing the other relievers quickly:

- Ron Mahay has been, in a word, studly. His 1.78 ERA is just shy of the team record by a left-handed reliever (1.73, by Tom Burgmeier in 1971.) He has no platoon split to speak of – lefties are hitting .225, righties are hitting .223. He leads the bullpen in innings pitched, an amazing achievement for a left-hander. He’s been an absolute revelation.

Naturally, this means that the Royals are contemplating trading him. On paper, it makes sense. There are always contenders in need of a good lefthander in the bullpen (unlike, say, second base, where the market for Grudzielanek is nearly non-existent), and Mahay should fetch some decent talent. The fact that he’s signed for 2009 is a plus; realistically the Royals can’t expect to contend next season, so the value of keeping him for next year is outweighed by the value he’d bring another team.

The biggest reason not to trade him is this: these are baseball players, not baseball cards, and baseball players do not take kindly to being treated as such. Mahay signed a contract to pitch for the Kansas City Royals. He did so as a free agent, meaning he was free to sign with any team, and he chose Kansas City. Implicit in that contract is an understanding that Mahay will not be sold off at a profit at the first opportunity.

Obviously, players know that trades are part of the game. Any pre-free agency player is fair game, and so is any player in the final year of his contract. But if a team trades a player in the first year of a multi-year contract, they run the risk that the next time they want to sign a free agent, that player will say, “why should I sign with you when I might have to pack up and move in six months?” If the right deal comes along, the Royals should take it. But it has to be the right deal, or they run the risk of hurting their future forays in the free-agent market for a modest short-term gain.

- Ramon Ramirez just surrendered his first homer of the season, and has surrendered just two homers in 80 innings away from Coors Field in his career. Strangely, he’s not a groundball pitcher at all. This leads to the suspicion that his HR rate is a bit of a fluke, which it probably is. The more telling stat is that away from Coors Field, his career ERA is 2.24. There’s not much fancy about Ramirez – he throws a good fastball and an excellent slider – and he’s a good bet to remain effective. Just keep in mind that, like most pitchers with his repertoire, he’s susceptible to left-handed hitters, who against Ramirez hit about 80 points better than right-handers across the board.

- I don’t have much to say about Leo Nunez – you can’t conclude much about 21 innings, excellent though they were. I will say this: it’s good to have him back.

- Jimmy Gobble sucks.

Not enough for you? Assuming his season ends shortly – we can only hope – he will finish with the highest ERA ever by a Royals pitcher with 24 or more innings. In second is Don Wengert, 1999 (9.25), followed by Dan Reichert, 1999 (9.08). Just missing the list because of my arbitrary cutoff is Albie Lopez in 2003, with a 12.71 ERA in 22 innings. (Remember what I said about having bad relievers? Yeah.)

- Horacio Ramirez and Robinson Tejeda are just the most recent examples of why you should never, ever give up on a pitcher entirely until you’ve tried him in relief. Tejeda had a wee problem throwing strikes last night, but in 12.2 innings since he joined the team, he has struck out 14 and allowed just six hits. Horacio hasn’t walked a single batter in 15.2 innings. Just as importantly, both pitchers can work two or even three innings when needed, which is vital for a team that’s prone to having its starter knocked out of the game early. I think the idea of moving Horacio back to the rotation (and optioning Bannister) is ludicrous, though. At his best Horacio was a #4 starter, and he wasn’t always at his best. If we can turn him into a quality long reliever from the left side, that’s more valuable than anything he’s likely to give us in the rotation.

- The new kid who pitched last night showed a lot of potential. His fastball only touched 90, but he came with a three-quarters delivery and his arm has whip-like action that should make him tough on right-handers. He froze Ivan Rodriguez with a nasty curveball, and anyone who can strike Pudge out looking has some potential. He also showed some fine leather on the mound. And best of all, pitching in the AL, he won’t have to hit.

Yeah, the notion of using Tony Pena Jr. on the mound is crazy. But then, so is the notion of using him at the plate.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Royals Today: 7/20/2008.

If I may quote my White Sox beat writer friend from a few years ago…how the hell did we win this game?

Things certainly started out well enough, the exact opposite of Friday night’s death by a thousand singles. Teahen poked one up the middle, Aviles dropped one into the left-center gap, and DeJesus sliced one to left. DeJesus stole second base on the pitcher; A.J. Pierzynski didn’t even throw to second. Butler singled to center. The new lineup was looking good.

With one out Gordon drew a walk – he already has more walks this year than last – to load the bases, but Olivo struck out and John Danks was threatening to wiggle out of the inning. Until Ross Gload came through with a two-run single. 4-0, Bannister hasn’t even taken the mound – what could go wrong?

Well, Hillball could make an appearance. With two outs, men on first and third, and German at the plate…Gload lit out for second. He was only about by about ten feet.

I realize I’m spitting in the wind here – nothing against any of you fine readers, but none of you are flashing signs at first base – but can someone get through to Trey Hillman that the only threat Ross Gload poses on the bases is to his own team? Gload has now attempted 7 steals this season, and has been nailed on more than half of them. He’s 11-for-20 in his career.

The situation made the decision to run even worse. For one thing, there was a runner at third base – which raises the risks of getting caught stealing, because you end the inning with a man in scoring position already, but does not raise the rewards. You can calculate the break-even point for a stolen-base attempt using the run expectancy matrix. For instance, this season when there are men on first-and-third and two outs, the average team scores 0.458 runs the rest of the inning. With men on second and third and two outs (i.e. after a successful steal of second), that number rises to 0.616 runs. But if the runner is caught stealing, the number drops to zero, as the inning is over. If you do a little algebra, you can calculate that the break-even point for a basestealing attempt in this situation is 74.3% - you have to be successful more than 74.3% of the time to make the steal attempt worthwhile.

By comparison, with a man on first only and two outs, the break-even point is 67.3%. You already have a man in scoring position – why put two runners at risk of dying on the bases so that one runner might advance?

The second point has nothing to do with math and everything to do with psychology. John Danks has already given up four runs, and two men are on base – he’s obviously laboring, and you have a chance to ice this game against a struggling pitcher. Why hand him a free out? Hillman did, and it would hurt the Royals even more when German led off the second with a double into the gap – a double that probably would have scored Gload from first base anyway.

Ah, but the fun was just getting started. DeJesus was caught leaning the wrong way on first base, and got picked off (officially a caught stealing because he got caught in a rundown) to end the second. And in the fifth, Billy Butler – who I swear is trying to set the all-time record for most boneheaded baserunning outs in one season – casually assumed that Gordon’s line drive would get through the infield, and was almost to third base when Orlando Cabrera reached up and caught it. He could have crawled to the bag and had time to double up Butler.

So in the span of five innings, the Royals had made the final out on the bases three times. Meanwhile, Bannister’s transition to becoming a power pitcher hit another roadblock. He gave up two runs in the first inning (and left the bases loaded), and a game-tying three-run homer to Joe Crede in the third. Remarkably, he started both innings by retiring the first two batters. There’s a lot of good things to take from this outing – he struck out four batters, and aside from Swisher’s homer every other hit was a single. Much like Greinke, he just seemed to be giving up a lot of well-placed batted balls.

But there are still some adjustments he has to make. He threw 77 pitches in just three innings, and reached a full count on five batters. He seems to be trying to up his strikeout rate by nibbling at the corners – Bannister has not thrown strikes on more than 62% of his pitches in any of his last eight starts. By comparison, he threw more than 62% strikes in ten of his first 12 starts.

Meanwhile, the Royals couldn’t touch their old teammate D.J. Carrasco, but Horacio Ramirez was equally effective in the bottom halves of the inning. In the seventh, DeJesus took off for second base on a 2-2 count to Butler. It may have been a hit-and-run; Butler swung through a bad pitch, and DeJesus was out easily at second place for the inning-ending double play. That’s four unnecessary outs in seven innings.

In the bottom of the seventh, all the wasted opportunities came to bear when Swisher connected off Ramon Ramirez – shortly after Jim Thome doubled for his 2000th career hit – for a go-ahead homer. I’ll take the blame on this one; when Ramirez entered the game, I mentioned to the small but hardy group of Royals fans that joined me at the park today that he had not surrendered a home run all season.

And then, in the top of the 8th, came one of the weirdest managerial moves I’ve ever seen. After Grudzielanek struck out against Octavio Dotel, we watched as Alex Gordon trudged from the on-deck circle back to the dugout. We waited for him to return, perhaps with a new bat or helmet or something. We wondered why Jose Guillen was walking to the plate instead. We heard the PA announcer overhead informing us that Guillen was pinch-hitting for Gordon, but it didn’t register. Until at some point it did, and we all turned to each other, a row of Royals fans all with their mouths open but no sound coming out.

Jose Guillen was pinch-hitting for…Alex Gordon.

Alex Gordon, who’s hitting .280/.365/.492 against right-handed pitching.

Gordon, who’s just a tick behind David DeJesus as the best hitter on the team against right-handers.

With Guillen, who’s hitting .257/.275/.420 against RHP.

I dare say it’s unusual to deliberately give up the platoon advantage when pinch-hitting in any situation, unless the batter is a pitcher or his dad used to manage the club but quit in the middle of the night or something. But to pinch-hit for one of your best hitters in a key situation and surrender the platoon advantage at the same time…I’m sorry, but this doesn’t add up.

I suspect there is more to the story here. After the game Hillman said, “I didn’t really like the way Alex was swinging the bat today.” O-kay. If you say so, Trey. Gordon walked in the first inning. He struck out in the third inning – both those at-bats against a left-hander, and we all know Gordon has had trouble against left-handers this year. Against Carrasco in the fifth, he hit a soft line drive that Cabrera caught – not a screaming line drive, but certainly one that would have gotten through for a hit had it been placed better. Miguel Olivo, to that point, had a worse game than Gordon – and he’s garbage against right-handed hitters. But for some reason Hillman decided that Gordon was the problem.

There has to be more to the story here. Maybe Gordon wasn't showing enough effort, or he was insubordinate, or he made a pass at one of Hillman’s relatives. But somehow he has gotten on Hillman’s bad side. That’s the only explanation that makes sense here. Whatever the explanation is, it’s not good for Royals fans. Either we have yet another clubhouse crisis that needs to be defused, or our manager is just astonishingly stupid. There’s no way to spin this as a positive going forward.

But today, it was brilliant. Rarely in the annals of Royals history has such a clearly bad move played a more significant role in helping the Royals win. Guillen got hit by a pitch. He stole second base – yeah, it finally worked, Trey, and it still didn’t factor in the outcome. Gload worked a walk from Matt Thornton, against whom lefties are hitting .132 this year. And Esteban German, getting a chance to prove that the last two seasons were not a fluke, ripped one past Joe Crede, and Gload came around from first to score the go-ahead run.

If you think I’m done ripping on Trey Hillman, think again. As early as the sixth inning, I turned to the boys and said, “you know, if we have the lead in the 8th and Hillman doesn’t use Soria for two innings, he’s never going to use him for two innings.” Soria hasn’t pitched since the All-Star Game on Tuesday. His two set-up men, Ramirez and Mahay, both pitched yesterday. (In fact, Soria’s the only guy in the pen who didn’t pitch on Friday or Saturday.) The Royals’ starting pitcher didn’t make it past three innings for the second time in three days. Soria is the only fresh reliever in the pen. It’s a tight game on the road against a team that kills us in their park. The Sox have their leadoff hitter due up to start the 8th. If you’re not going to use Soria for the two-inning save here, when are you?

Mahay came in to pitch the 8th. Cabrera hit a line-drive right at DeJesus. Pierzynski hit a ground-rule double to right-center. Carlos Quentin walked. And only then did Soria get up in the pen and start throwing lightly.

Brian Anderson singled through the 5-6 hole to leftfield. And Trey Hillman got to play the genius, because replacing German (who had moved to third) in leftfield was Guillen – who launched a one-hop missile to the plate. Pierzynski didn’t even bother to slide – he just pulled up as Olivo tagged him. He looked more surprised than anything else, like he had just been the victim of the hidden-ball trick or something. Mahay struck out Thome, and that was it.

I mean, yeah, there was still an inning to play, but it was time for the Mexicutioner to restore order and sanity, and he did. Konerko managed to hit Soria’s first pitch of the ninth to medium-depth centerfield; the next two hitters both struck out on curveballs that were so wicked that Olivo had to tag both batters because each strikeout pitch bounced.

(Now that Soria has a nickname, is it time we named his pitches as well? At the very least, I propose we name the Mexicutioner’s weapon of choice – that ridiculous slow curveball that batters know they’re going to get with two strikes and still can’t resist – the Guillotine. Why the Guillotine? Because it’s sharp, it drops straight down, and it dispatches its victims with lethal efficiency.)

So the curse is broken. Despite my presence at the park, despite one of Hillman’s worst games in a season rife with bad ones, the Royals won. A special thanks to the guys who came to the game with me, and congratulations to Brian Sobek, who by virtue of outlasting the competition in the Obscure Royals Trivia contest I dreamed up, won himself a Mexicutioner T-shirt courtesy of my friends at 810 WHB.