Friday, August 8, 2008

Caution: This Post Has Absolutely Nothing To Do With The Royals.

Or baseball. Or sports at all, for that matter.

Apparently the Royals have been beaten badly in their two games since I last posted. I can’t say I’ve been paying much attention. I’m afraid I’ve been a little distracted by the fact that one of my friends has been accused in the national media of being a terrorist sympathizer.

When I started this blog, I warned you all that “I may even write about religion or politics from time to time, particularly if I feel my readership base has grown too large and I want to alienate half of you in one fell swoop.” Today I have to write about politics and religion at the same time, but fortunately I've found a better venue for this particular piece of writing than a Royals blog. If you want to see what I'm like when I'm really angry about something a lot more important than baseball, click here.

But if there’s the slightest chance that you might be offended by my personal opinions, peppered with a few words you can’t hear on network television, then please don't. You've been warned.

This isn’t about politics or religion for me, though. This is intensely personal.

Hopefully I'll be back to talking Royals in a few days.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Royals Today: 8/5/2008.

Geez, tough crowd. I decide to go off-topic one time and revisit some nicknames – something I had promised to do for months – and I get booed off the stage. I guess I should stick with safe topics, like commenting on John Buck’s shaved head or asking for the millionth time, “why is Tony Pena Jr. still on the roster?”

I thought this was a good time for an off-topic post because there’s not much else to talk about in the dog days of August*. The trading deadline has past, enough season has been played that our impressions of each player are not likely to be swayed by a single 4-for-4 performance, and we already have a handle on how the manager uses his roster. There are few surprises this time of year. The team is what it is.

*: Do you know why they call them “dog days,” and have for thousands of years? Because it’s the time of year when the Dog Star – Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky – would rise with the sun. The exact dates vary on the source, but generally they run from early July to early August. According to Wikipedia, “The ancients sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of the Dog Days to appease the rage of Sirius, believing that the star was the cause of the hot, sultry weather.” And you thought this blog was just about the Royals.

I was actually planning to start a review of the minor league system today, but last night’s game intervened. Monday’s win over the Red Sox may not have taught us anything new, but it certainly reinforced what we already knew. To wit:

- The Epic – sorry, so sorry, I forgot, Gilbert Allen Meche – has justified his contract this year as well as last. Since April 27th, he’s 9-6 with a 3.31 ERA, with 95 Ks against 37 walks, and just nine homers in 120 innings in that span. I don’t believe in selective accounting; unless it’s 1981, you don’t make the playoffs because of how you played over a portion of the season. But Meche’s recent performance is reassuring given that he had the exact opposite trendline last season – a hot start followed by a below-average performance for the final four months. If you break down Meche’s career with the Royals into three parts, you get this:

First 9 starts: 1.91 ERA, .250/.301/.360 against.
Middle 30 starts: 4.90 ERA, .275/.329/.434 against.
Last 19 starts: 3.31 ERA, .239/.294/.369 against.

Over the span of nearly a full year, Meche was a below average starter. But for a span of nearly a full season before and after that middle stretch, he has been a Cy Young contender. Note that he’s pitched just as well over the last three months as he did the first six weeks of last season – his sub-2 ERA last season was a bit fluky.

So which is the real Meche? Right now, both. When Meche was going through his rocky times earlier this year, you could understand why Mariner fans were so exasperated with him for so long. He had his usual good stuff, but he pitched timidly. He was overly reliant on off-speed stuff and did not challenge hitters. He fell in love with his curve, and while it’s an excellent curveball, it’s not so good that hitters can’t pound it if they know it’s coming.

After every rough start Meche would talk candidly about he wasn’t aggressive enough on the mound…and then the same thing would repeat itself the next time out. But in the last two months he’s gotten into a groove, he’s working off of his fastball more, and he’s using his changeup and slider more for show than anything else. And he’s challenging hitters. The Red Sox walked five times yesterday because they’re the Red Sox and do that to everyone, but Meche also struck out nine.

Take this opinion for what it’s worth, coming from someone who has no contact with the team, but I think the difference has been John Buck. There are piles of evidence that show that catchers have a negligible, if not undetectable, impact on the quality of a pitcher’s performance. Nonetheless, there are probably instances on the margins where a catcher really does make his pitcher better.

After every rough start Meche would talk candidly about he wasn’t aggressive enough on the mound…and then the same thing would repeat itself the next time out. But in the last two months he’s gotten into a groove, he’s working off of his fastball more, and he’s using his changeup and slider more for show than anything else. And he’s challenging hitters. The Red Sox walked five times yesterday because they’re the Red Sox and do that to everyone, but Meche also struck out nine.

Take this opinion for what it’s worth, coming from someone who has no contact with the team, but I think the difference has been John Buck. There are piles of evidence that show that catchers have a negligible, if not undetectable, impact on the quality of a pitcher’s performance. Nonetheless, there are probably instances on the margins where a catcher really does make his pitcher better.

Consider that Olivo started behind the plate three times in Meche’s first six outings. Since then, Olivo has only caught Meche twice, on May 15th (7 innings, 3 runs) and June 5th (5.2 innings, 5 runs.) Since June 5th Buck has caught all 11 of Meche’s starts – during which time Meche is 7-1 with a 2.69 ERA. Buck has gotten rave reviews from the team all year for his ability to work with the pitchers, which is why he has emerged from the time-share with Olivo as the undisputed starter. I think that Meche has felt that impact more than most. Meche won’t run the risk of overthinking on the mound when he has a catcher who does the thinking for him.

On the season, batters are hitting .244/.302/.392 against Meche with Buck catching, compared to .287/.348/.434 with Olivo back there. Meche clearly feels more comfortable with Buck, a comfort level that was there last year as well. Buck caught roughly two-thirds of the team’s innings in 2007, but caught every one of Meche’s 34 starts. Jason LaRue was behind the plate for about two innings of work.

I don’t like the idea of letting a starting pitcher have a personal catcher, primarily because the “personal catcher” usually winds up being the backup who can’t hit. Greg Maddux would have Eddie Perez catch him in Atlanta instead of Javy Lopez for years, which was a real problem come playoff time and the Braves were starting a .220-hitting scrub behind the plate. But in this case, Buck’s the starter on merit. If Meche feels more comfortable throwing to Buck – and the evidence says yes – I think his wishes should be accommodated. As they are.

- Jose Manuel Guillen is best utilized at DH until his groin heals up. He still can’t run – he probably would have been thrown out at second on his first double if Jason Bay had realized he had a play – but he can swing the bat.

- Alex Jonathan Gordon keeps getting closer and closer to blowing up as a Three True Outcomes masher. First time up – 402-foot homer to right field. Second time up – walks on a full-count. Third time up – works the count to 3-1 before getting an intentional ball four. Fourth time up – sends Coco Crisp back to the wall in deepest centerfield. Tick tock. Tick tock. There’s a bomb about to go off here. I can feel it.

- Esteban (Guridi) German can play five or six different positions – and can’t field a lick at any of them. The way he plays the outfield reminds me of Kevin Nealon’s character on Saturday Night Live: Mr. No-Depth Perception.

- The way Thomas Brad “Trey” Hillman used Joakim Agustin Soria on Saturday night is the exception that proves the rule. As you may recall, on a sweltering evening in which Ronald Matthew Mahay and Ramon Santo Ramirez allowed four runs in the eighth inning, Hillman called on Soria with the tying run on second and just one out in the eighth. Soria was his usual brilliant self, and recorded just his second save of the season of more than three outs. It was the first time all season Soria came in to pitch with men on base.

Let’s repeat that: Soria had never come in to pitch with men on base all season. Ryan Lefebvre breathlessly repeated that for us last night, but said it in such a way as to convey how amazing it was that the Royals finally required Soria to clean up a mess – not how ridiculous it was that Hillman had never before summoned his best pitcher, having one of the best relief seasons in the history of the franchise, with men on base. I realize I never played professional baseball and thus am considered unqualified by some people to speak on such matters, but I’m fairly sure that most key situations in baseball (define “key situations” however you like) occur when there are men on base.

In 1983, when he set the then all-time saves record, Daniel Raymond Quisenberry came in with men on base 25 times. When Jeffrey Thomas Montgomery tied Quisenberry’s record with 45 saves of his own in 1993, he came in with men on base 21 times.

In 48 appearances so far this year, Soria has done so once.

Last night would have been an ideal opportunity for a repeat engagement. Ramirez got three quick outs in the seventh and two more in the eighth, but then Sean Thomas Casey sold the umpire on a claim that the squibber off his bat bounced off his shin and was a foul ball, and given another chance, Casey singled. Jed Carlson Lowrie followed with another, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate in the person of Jason Andrew Varitek. Tying run is on base, and Soria had the previous day off. Perfect time for a four-out save, right?

Nope. Mahay came in, even though Varitek’s a switch-hitter who has batted about 30 points higher against LHP in his career. The move worked – Mahay got the key strikeout after falling behind 3-0. But the fact that Soria was never even considered an option (he didn’t warm up the entire inning) really sticks in my craw.

Maybe I’m making too much of this. The Royals don’t simply have a great closer; they have a great bullpen. Baseball Prospectus has a stat known as WXRL – expected wins above replacement level – which calculates how much value a reliever has, based not just on his performance but how important the situation is when he comes into the game. A closer who is entrusted with a one-run lead and gives up a pair has hurt his team a lot more than the relievers who gives up 5 runs with his team down 10-0.

By this metric, Soria is the fourth-best reliever in all of baseball, having been worth 4.2 wins to the Royals. But Mahay is just behind him, in 7th place, at 3.6 wins. Mahay, in fact, is the most valuable set-up man in baseball by this metric, as the six guys ahead of him are all closers.

Limiting Soria to the ninth inning hasn’t hurt the Royals much, because they have Mahay and Ramirez to pitch the seventh and eighth. What bothers me so much isn’t that the bullpen roles have hurt the team, it’s that Hillman has shown no creativity whatsoever. He was sold to us as a guy who thinks outside the box. Instead, all he’s done is put his relievers into boxes. Soria pitches the ninth – no ifs, ands, or buts. And never mind if that means your best reliever has thrown fewer innings than the two guys who set up for him.

Jim Caple just wrote a great article for on how overrated the modern closer is. Here’s the money quote:

“Why do teams do this [limit closers to save situations] when this is such a readily apparent poor use of resources?

‘I'll tell you why,’ Oakland general manager Billy Beane says. ‘It's the same reason more football coaches don't go for it on fourth-and-1. Because when it doesn't work, 30 of you guys come storming in wondering why the manager didn't go to the closer. It's turned into a situation where a lot of emotion is tied to that decision, just as a lot of emotion is tied to the fourth-down decision. Even if you know the odds, it's more comfortable being wrong when you go to the closer or the punter.

‘The position has become very media-driven. It became a national story when Boston announced it would go with a bullpen by committee.’”

Beane’s point is that managers – like football coaches – are unbelievably risk-averse. (I think we’d all agree that Hillman’s got nothing on the guy across the Truman Sports Complex.) But Beane also points out that if a manager uses a closer in an unconventional method and it doesn’t work, the media will crucify him.

This may be true for 29 major league franchises – but not in Kansas City. The Royals have the perfect opportunity to do something non-traditional. They’re not in contention, and they haven’t been in years. They’re not a team with a big national following, so outside of Kansas City no one will care what they’re doing. The local media isn’t particularly large, nor is it particularly nasty or negative. And best of all, the local media gets it.

Let’s say that Hillman suddenly announces that he’s going to use Soria whenever the game’s in doubt, that he’ll bring him in to pitch two innings if need be, that he’ll use him in the 7th if the game’s on the line. And let’s say that the first time he uses Soria in this manner, it fails spectacularly – Soria doesn’t get out of the jam, or he does but then he blows the game in the ninth. Who’s going to crucify him?

You think Posnanski, who’s been complaining about modern closer usage almost as much as I have, will second-guess Hillman? You think Bob Dutton, who has bitten his tongue through a decade of nearly historic incompetence, will suddenly unleash his venom in a game recap? Sam Mellinger won’t complain; he’s one of us. Jason Whitlock has the temperament, but he’s smart enough to know that this topic is beyond his jurisdiction. Some of the radio guys might stir things up for the fun of it, but Soren Petro and Danny Clinkscale, among others, know as much about baseball analysis as any radio guy in the country.

We get it. We remember what a game-changing force Quisenberry used to be. We know the Royals have nothing to lose. We’re willing to take the gamble. Why is it that the only people in Kansas City who are afraid to try something different with the Royals are the guys who run the team?

- I’m advocating that the Royals use Soria in a more creative way, because I’ve about given up on advocating that they move him to the rotation. If you want to know why, look at last night’s game. As Will McDonald wrote last night at, “A pitcher without Soria's core competence gives up four runs there.” I disagree with Will – a pitcher without Soria’s core competence gets chased out of the game, whereupon Hillman calls on Joel Peralta to clear the bases with a gopher ball. Six, seven runs easy.

Let’s recount: after Soria gives up a line-drive by Covelli Loyce Crisp to lead off the inning, he strikes out David Jonathan Drew on a full-count check-swing. (Wait…David Jonathan? J.D. is actually D.J.? Weird.) Dustin Luis Pedroia then hits a lazy popup to shallow left-center field; German, naturally, doesn’t break on the ball at all and it falls in for a hit. David Americo (Arias) Ortiz – and no wonder he’s so clutch, his middle name is Americo – hits a sharp grounder to Ross Peter Gload, but Gload hesitates for a moment before settling for just one out.

With two on, two out, and Kevin Edmund Youkilis at the plate, Hillman does what any of us would do – he orders the free pass. Wait, scratch that. Hillman does what none of us would do. He intentionally walks Youkilis for…Jason Raymond Bay? He intentionally walks an outstanding hitter to load the bases for…another outstanding hitter?

We can argue all day over whether Youkilis or Bay is a better hitter. Youkilis has slightly – very slightly – better numbers this year, Bay has the better track record. They have similar styles – right-handed hitters, good power, excellent walk rates. At the plate, at least, they’re almost identical players.

So why on earth would you walk one to face the other? Especially with two outs, when there’s no double play to set up? Until recently, intentionally walking the go-ahead run was considered a cardinal sin. It no longer is, but you still better have a damn good reason to do so. What was Hillman’s reason?

With the tying run in scoring position, maybe he was worried that Youkilis was more likely to get a hit. Youkilis does have the better average this season, but for their careers Youkilis has hit .288, Bay .282. For a six-point advantage, Hillman loaded the bases, giving Soria no room for error, and allowing the Red Sox to advance the runners with a walk.

The only explanation I’ve heard uttered is that Bay had never faced Soria before. A number of studies have looked at the issue of whether a pitcher has an advantage on a hitter the first time they face each other. I believe the consensus is that there is an advantage – of about 5 points of batting average. Big deal. (And if you believe that Soria has an advantage over Bay because they’ve never faced, wouldn’t you believe that Soria’s track record against Youkilis – 0-for-2 with a whiff – matters as well?)

Hillman has only ordered nine intentional walks all year, which is hard to believe, because I've singled out at least four of them for criticism in this space. Thank God he’s so stingy with them, because he clearly has no idea what they’re supposed to be used for.

After all that, Bay hits a routine grounder to the left side, only to have Gordon and Tony Francisco Pena Jr. collide trying to both field it. The only way this situation could be funnier is if Pena, German, and Gload had all moved to their current positions for defensive purposes in the top of the 8th.

Finally, Soria hangs an 0-2 curveball to Casey – his worst pitch of the night – but Casey’s liner hangs up long enough for Mark Thomas Teahen to catch it and end the game. Karma’s a bitch, Sean.

So let’s recap: in the span of four batters, the Royals commit three defensive misplays sandwiched around a managerial blunder. In the ninth inning. Of a two-run game. And they still hung on to win.

I’ve written this many times before: at times like this, Soria is the only sane man in an insane world. And unless and until the insanity ends, unless and until the Royals prove they can catch routine flyballs and field routine groundballs and make sane managerial decisions when the game is on the line, Soria isn’t going anywhere. Nor should he. I just wish they’d use him more.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Yabba-Dabba Do!

There’s nothing like a summer weekend under the sweltering hot sunshine watching the Royals wage war on the White Sox pitching staff. (Especially when you can watch the games in your lovely air-conditioned home.) The Baseball Jonah has shaken off his White Sox demons, Mike Aviles is hitting .340 (wait…what?), Billy Butler has eight hits in his last three games, and Robinson Tejeda was absolutely dealing today.

Trey Hillman has apparently taken my advice – or yielded to common sense – and moved Guillen to DH, Butler to first base, and Gload to left field. This gives Butler some much-needed reps at first base, gives Guillen some time to heal up, and may have actually improved the defense all at the same time. Lo and behold, in two games at DH Guillen has two homers and two walks. The Royals have 19 hits in back-to-back games for the first time in their history, and if you squint you can almost see .500 again.

Let’s enjoy it while we can. Boston comes to town next, then the Twins, then it’s off to Chicago and New York…52-60 could be 55-69 awfully fast. If the Royals can tread water over the next two weeks, maybe we can start dreaming of a .500 season.

In the meantime, it’s time to revisit the Nickname Project, something I’ve been promising to do for a few months now. I find it incredibly amusing that if I were to end this blog today, its one enduring legacy would be The Mexicutioner. Amusing, but also gratifying. The goal of this blog is to write about the team from a fan’s perspective, objectivity be damned, but because of the healthy attitude that the Kansas City media has towards blogs, this particular fan’s perspective has been amplified by the power of the newspaper and radio. How many star players have their nickname decided, not by themselves or their teammates or the media, but by the fans? That’s what happened here, and I am very grateful for this.

I’m also greedy. The Mexicutioner got the Dutton Seal of Approval™, as did Shake Yabuta, who unfortunately (or fortunately) is unlikely to ever require use of that nickname again. But we’ve still got a few dozen players to go.

So it’s time to unveil the official Rany on the Royals nickname for another member of the team.

Henceforth – with a nod to poster Zach, who I believe was the first person to suggest this nickname – Billy Butler shall be known as Bam Bam.

If you heard my interview with Kevin Kietzman on Thursday you know the reasons why I love this nickname so much. In summary:

- Billy Butler. Bam Bam. A little alliteration never hurts.

- Bam Bam is a baby. Billy Butler has been the youngest player on the team every day that he has spent in the majors. As a rookie, he was younger than all but two other players in the American League; even this season, only three players younger than Butler have appeared in even one game with an AL team. (There’s also the matter of Jose Guillen’s little rant that the Royals have “too many babies” that ties in nicely here.)

- Most importantly, all Bam Bam ever did was hit things with a wooden stick, and despite his youth was phenomenally destructive with one. All Billy Butler does (at least well) is hit things with a wooden stick – and when he makes contact, hide the women and children.

The key to any nickname catching on is that there should be no ambiguity about who you’re referring to. If you told a Royals fan that one of the team’s players was called “Bam Bam”, even a casual fan would know immediately that you were referring to Butler. The nickname is not overly highbrow like The Baseball Jonah or The Epic, and it rolls off the tongue. The marketing tie-ins are obvious. Instead of playing music before every at-bat, they could just play a Flintstones clip of Bam Bam yipping his name over and over again. Then there’s the poster of Butler dressed up like a caveman. You get the point.

(Wikipedia lists the son of Barney and Betty Rubble as “Bamm-Bamm.” I think we’ll stick with the simpler spelling here, if for no reason than to avoid the ire – and the lawyers – of the Hanna-Barbera folks.)

The only possible concern with the nickname is that Butler would not be the first player with that nickname. Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens was a top Yankee prospect two decades ago…back when the Yankees sucked so bad that they thought a guy like Meulens was a savior. (Man, I miss those days.) In parts of seven seasons in the majors, Meulens hit .220 with 15 homers. As a rule of thumb, I think that in order for a player to be given a recycled nickname, he must be a superior player to the man whose name he is taking. Butler already has had more success than Meulens had in his entire career, so no worries there.

We can work on Greinke and the Brain, Mr. Incredible and The Smirk and Stubble and Sybil later. Right now, the Mexicutioner needs a friend. I think he and Bam Bam will get along famously.