Saturday, August 30, 2008

When I Called Hillman #2, This Wasn't What I Meant.

“They say it is always darkest before the dawn. The problem is that there’s no way to tell whether now is that darkest hour, only that it’s darker than it has ever been before.”

I wrote that line at the end of the Royals chapter in our annual Baseball Prospectus book, after the Royals had just endured the worst season in franchise history, their first 100-loss season ever – six years ago. At that point in time, while it did not appear that the Royals could turn things around quickly, it was hard to see how things could get any worse. What’s worse than a 100-loss season? Is there a color darker than black?

But of course, they did. Two years later they would lose 104 games, then 106 the next year, then in 2006 they became the first non-expansion team in over 50 years to lose 100 games in three straight seasons.

Then came last year, when the Royals won 69 games – their second-most wins this century! Alex Gordon got a standing ovation on Opening Day. His sidekick Billy Butler joined him a few months later. Zack Greinke made a triumphant return from his bout with social anxiety. Gil Meche was the rare free-agent signing that panned out. Joakim Soria was a Rule 5 revelation. If you squinted, you could see a flash of purple on the eastern horizon.

If it’s always darkest before the dawn, then we must be getting closer to sunrise, because it just keeps getting darker.

August 2008 will likely go down as one of the worst months the Royals have ever had. They are 6-19 with two games to go. After staying remarkably healthy for the season’s first four months, they’ve been blindsided by the law of averages. Their second baseman tore up his ankle the day after he wasn’t traded at the trading deadline (and just a week before an obvious trading partner presented itself, when the Diamondbacks lost Orlando Hudson for the rest of the season*). Their third baseman may be out for the year with a torn quad muscle. Their #4 starter is out for the year after somehow bruising his ribcage in the act of throwing a pitch. Their fourth outfielder – well, one of their many fourth outfielders – had his face smashed in by an errant pitch while trying to bunt. Their left-handed setup man – who was the best setup man in baseball through the end of July – gave up 8 runs in 2 innings before going on the DL with plantar fasciitis.

*: With tomorrow night being the deadline for teams to trade for players that will be eligible for the postseason, I think this is worth putting out there: why don’t the Royals trade Grudzielanek (while picking up the remainder of his contract) to the Diamondbacks for a PTBNL? Grudzielanek may not be ready to play until the end of September, but he should be ready to play in October, whereas Hudson is out for the year. And I would imagine that Grudzielanek would be more motivated to return earlier for a team headed for the postseason. In Hudson’s absence, the Diamondbacks have been forced to play Augie Ojeda (.246/.354/.309) and Chris Burke (.195/.307/.270) at second base. Grudz has hit .299/.345/.399 this year, and you can tack on some points against NL competition. (Against the NL this year, he hit .396/.475/.491. Last year, he hit .320/.370/.720.) There’s no risk for Arizona; if Grudzielanek can’t return, then they trade the Royals a player of no consequence. If he is able to return before the end of the season, and the Diamondbacks make the playoffs, then the PTBNL would a more substantial prospect. Everybody wins.

A month after Jose Guillen denied reports that he can’t stand Trey Hillman, Miguel Olivo went out of his way to confirm reports of the same. Oh, and Eric Hosmer, the Royals #1 pick, has been hit by crossfire in the astonishing Pedro Alvarez gunfight going on in Pittsburgh, and is out at least until an arbitrator rules on the case on September 10th. (Long term, I’m not really concerned – the odds that Hosmer’s contract is ruled invalid is infinitesimal given that everyone involved – Hosmer, the Royals, the MLBPA, the Commissioner’s Office – would prefer to keep Hosmer where he is. But it’s most certainly a pain in the ass right now.)

The Royals’ disappointing performance and stunning collapse forces us to re-evaluate what we thought we knew about a lot of players. But I’m not sure anyone’s reputation has fallen farther in my eyes than that of Hillman. Four months ago, you may recall, I was singing his praises, ranking him #2 on my list of reasons to be excited for the Royals’ future. Now? Well, let’s see what I wrote then, and what we think now.

- “[T]he one trait I’m most comfortable pinning on Hillman, and one of the reasons I’m so optimistic about his hiring: he’s adaptable.”

By “adaptable”, I was referring to his willingness to tailor different strategies for different personnel. He went to his first Japan Series with a great offensive team; he went to his second with a team with the worst offense in the league.

In America? I suppose he deserves credit for “adapting” to Tony Pena’s sub-.170 average by grudgingly giving some starts to Mike Aviles, and then adapting to Aviles’ .330 average by continuing to play him every day. I don’t want to completely downplay Hillman’s contribution – he did give Aviles an opportunity to play, and has stuck with him at shortstop despite occasional defensive lapses. But it wasn’t exactly a move of genius.

He has dialed back the kamikaze basepath approach a little; after stealing 29 bases (but getting caught 19 times) in April and May, the Royals have swiped 39 bases against just 15 caught stealings since.

Other than that, I’m not sure Hillman has proven that he’s learned one thing about his roster from Opening Day to today. He still hasn’t learned that Ross Gload is a joke of a starting first baseman. Gload is hitting .271/.315/.343 this season, with three homers – or one fewer than Carlos Zambrano has hit in one-fifth the at-bats. Despite that, Gload has already smashed his career high in at-bats, and is getting more playing time as the season progresses, not less: he started just 51 games the first three months of the year, but started 26 times in July and 21 already in August.

He hasn’t learned that you can’t waste a roster spot on a .164 hitter who you don’t even use for defense. In the Royals’ last 44 games, Pena has batted just 20 times and played a total of 53 innings.

And he hasn’t learned what I cheekily named Jazayerli’s Law of Fundamentals a few years ago: A team's ability to execute the “fundamentals” is inversely correlated to the time spent discussing the importance of executing them. That’s all we heard in spring training: how, after years of trying to master the fundamentals without success, that now we had a manager who really, truly, honest-to-God, no-my-fingers-are-not-crossed, knew how to teach the fundamentals.

- “Hillman talked about the fundamentals a lot during the spring, and it remains to be seen whether that’s just the standard rigmarole that every new manager needs to say – a new manager saying he wants to focus on the fundamentals is like a newly-elected politician saying he wants to get tough on crime. If he keeps harping about it, then we’ll need to worry. My hope is that, like Bobby Cox or Mike Scioscia or Jim Leyland, he won’t talk about fundamentals as much in the future because he won’t need to: his team will have already proven they can execute them on the field.”

Instead, the 2008 Royals may be the worst team in major league history when it comes to catching popups. That’s saying something, given that their competition includes the 1996-2007 Royals.

- “Plus, the frequent references to bunting and offensive risk-taking notwithstanding, he seems to have a pretty good grounding in what makes an offense tick. From Bob Dutton:

‘I’ve spoken to all of them about eliminating batting average and going to OBP,’ he said. ‘Because OBP really is the statistic that tells you what your chances are of scoring runs.’”


“Talking with Dutton, here’s Hillman on his offensive philosophy:

‘OBP is a no-brainer,’ Hillman said. ‘Get on base and have guys drive you in. Be aggressively disciplined in the strike zone, but take your walks. After that, it depends on what you’re talking about.

‘If you’re talking about the middle of the lineup, which I consider three through seven, then I look for run production. So I go to slug (slugging percentage).’”

Um, yeah. About that OBP thing, Trey.

Last year, the Royals drew just 428 walks all year, ranking 13th – next-to-last – in the league in that category. In 2006, they managed to draw 474 walks, good enough for 10th in the league. By Royals standards, 2006 was a rousing success: since 1981, the Royals have ranked higher than 10th just five times in 27 years: 1988, 1989, 1997, 2002, 2003. The Royals haven’t ranked in the top half of the league in walks drawn since 1989.

There wasn’t exactly a high bar for Hillman to clear this year. But somehow he managed to do the limbo anyway. Through 134 games, the Royals have drawn just 328 walks this year. That puts the Royals on a pace for 397 walks, which would tie the 1983 team for the fewest walks in franchise history.

By comparison, every other team in the majors has drawn at least 364 walks. Except for the Mariners, every other AL team has at least 398 walks, which is to say 12 AL teams already have more walks than the Royals are on pace to finish with a month from now.

Since the 1983 Royals, just five teams have finished a full season with under 400 walks: the 1993 Rockies, 1998 Pirates, 2006 Cubs, and the Tigers in both 2002 and 2005. The Royals are on pace to become the sixth team in a quarter-century that fails to reach the 400-walk plateau.

And keep in mind that pace is likely to drop, given that the team’s most patient hitter, Gordon, is out for a few weeks if not the entire season.

On Sunday, the Royals drew five walks in a regulation game for the first time in almost exactly a month – since July 25th. Not coincidentally, they won the game by four runs, the only game they’ve won by more than a single run since August 3rd. (They can’t even get full credit for this one, though, since one of those walks was intentional.) They picked up on cause-and-effect so well that in their four games since, they’ve drawn four walks – combined.

I guess when Hillman said that OBP is a no-brainer, he meant that only people with no brains think it’s important.

Hillman’s not going anywhere for the time being. Dayton Moore’s approach is so deliberate that he hasn’t even gotten around to firing Mike Barnett yet, so Hillman is sure to get another year to show that he can turn pretty theories into hard reality. But a tenure that started with such promise six months ago has turned out to be a disaster. And as Hillman goes, so go the Royals.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Gordon Redux.

I was planning on making this a bullet-point “Royals Today” post, but instead I want to clarify my post on Alex Gordon and Mark Teahen in light of the general reaction in the blogosphere, which seems to boil down to, “Rany’s a moron.” That's probably true, but I don’t want you to base that opinion on just one column.

- First off, I need to make it clear that I'm not down on Alex Gordon as a hitter. I have written several times before that I am still optimistic that Gordon has a breakthrough shortly to come at the plate, and I still firmly believe that. Just in the past six weeks, Gordon has shown the patience that he showed in the minors and in college, and the patience that presages power: in 29 games since the All-Star Break, he walked 23 times and - despite a .261 average - had a .402 OBP. There's no question this injury comes at a bad times, as we'll have to wait until next year to know if, having learned to spit on pitches that are not inside his happy zone, he can start turning on the pitches that are. But whatever position Gordon plays next year, I am still optimistic that he'll be a force with the stick.

- There have been some comments that I’m leaning on a statistical metric to hammer Gordon’s defense, given that Baseball Prospectus rates his glove this year at a woeful 18 runs below average. I should make this clear: I wrote the entire post without even knowing what his defensive statistics were. I looked up his numbers at the end and was surprised to find they were as bad as they were, but I had already made up my mind that his defense was trending downwards based on personal observation. I may be wrong – I am not a scout – but given that I started the year with the belief that Gordon was an above-average third baseman, I don’t think I would have changed my mind without overwhelming evidence to the contrary. When the Royals were in Chicago last month I attended two games at U.S. Cellular, both times sitting in the upper deck between home plate and third base, which gave me a terrific bird’s eye view of his reaction times and range. It wasn’t pretty.

- I’ve seen a lot of comments that Gordon would be a disaster in the outfield given his frequent struggles with infield popups. That may be true, but I would submit that chasing popups and catching fly balls are different skill sets – outfielders don’t usually track balls that are hit almost completely vertically, while simultaneously trying to feel their way around baserunners, other infielders, the dugout steps, and fans in the first row. More importantly, I think this is something Gordon can improve with, you know, practice. Maybe he can’t handle the outfield, but I think the Royals have to try him there first, because moving him to first base wastes his talent and blocks other good hitters.

- And finally, I want to make it clear: I am not saying that the Royals should move Gordon off of third base. I am simply saying that the Royals are moving him, or at least strongly considering doing so. Moving Teahen back to third base is an incredibly strange move to make unless the Royals are serious about finding a replacement for Gordon at the position.

I mean, does anyone else think it’s weird that, two years after the Royals told Teahen that he was being moved off of third base permanently to make way for their new phenom, they’d go back to him and say, hey, we’d like you to play third base for a few weeks while our not-so-phenomenal phenom is on the DL? Billy Hall has struggled at third base for the Brewers this year, but they didn’t ask Ryan Braun to move back to third base. When Evan Longoria got hurt a few weeks ago, the Rays didn’t move Akinori Iwamura back to third base. Teams don’t move an everyday player from one position to another mid-season just to cover for an injury for a few weeks. But we’re not supposed to raise our eyebrows a little when Teahen moves from the outfield to third base?

I can think of two recent examples that resemble this situation a little. The first was earlier this year, when the Tigers opened the season with Miguel Cabrera at third base, and Carlos Guillen – who had played mostly shortstop, but had dabbled at first base the last few years – at first. Barely three weeks into the season, Jim Leyland decided to give voice to the whispers that had been following Cabrera for the past year – namely, that he had outgrown third base. Overnight, the two switched positions, and Cabrera is unlikely to play anywhere other than first base for the remainder of his 7-year contract.

The other example that comes to mind is when Chipper Jones, who moved from third base to left field to start the 2002 season, abruptly moved back to third base on June 15th, 2004 – against the Royals, strangely enough – and hasn’t started a game at another position since.

The point is, teams don’t have their starters change positions willy-nilly – these moves tend to be permanent. Gordon is no Cabrera, but like Cabrera his body may be growing too thick to play third adequately – and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because those body changes may also help him hit for more power over time. Teahen is no Chipper, but if Bobby Cox was comfortable with moving Chipper – who was never a great defensive player – back to third base after a two-year sabbatical, you have to figure that Dayton Moore would be comfortable moving Teahen back there as well.

Should they move Gordon? Like most good questions, the answer is, “it depends.” It depends on who replaces him at third base: whether Teahen is a defensive upgrade, and if he isn’t, then whether they can find another third baseman this offseason. (Or, perhaps more likely, whether Moore splurges on a shortstop. The thinking all summer has been that the Royals find a shortstop and move Aviles to second base. The developments of the last few days – including the return of Alberto Callaspo – makes me wonder if the plan isn’t to find a shortstop and move Aviles to third base.)

It depends on where they move Gordon. If the Royals move him to first base, without ever giving a shot to Kila Kaaihue, they will be making a mistake. But in the outfield, the Royals have just one good player (DeJesus) along with one marginal player who has to play because he’s getting paid $12 million a year and will go on a three-state shooting spree if he’s benched (Guillen). The Royals have a ton of good fourth outfielder types – Gathright, Maier, Costa, the ubiquitous Teahen – but no other starter-caliber options, whether in the majors or in the high minors. If Gordon’s offense continues to develop, his bat will carry any position. And it’s possible that, freed of the defensive demands of a more difficult position, Gordon will be more likely to reach his offensive potential.

I think the ideal solution here is that the Royals grab a shortstop over the winter; I know everyone and their mother is pining for Rafael Furcal. If the Royals can grab Furcal or someone of his ilk, move Aviles to third, Gordon to the outfield, and make Teahen a fantastic four-corners bench player, they can upgrade their defense at two positions without sacrificing one bit on offense.

I don’t know what the answer is, and frankly, neither do the Royals. That’s why Teahen’s back at third base – so that the Royals can evaluate whether he’s the answer or not. If he’s not, then they’ll probably spend all winter evaluating options from outside the organization, and deciding whether they can afford them.

Maybe the answer is that Gordon is still the team’s best option at third base in 2009, and maybe he’ll be there on Opening Day. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that his return there is a foregone conclusion. It’s simply impossible for any of us to know who’s going to be at third base next year. How can we, when it’s pretty clear that the Royals themselves don’t know?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Big News at the Hot Corner.

The remedy for a seven-game losing streak: more Duckworth. Baseball is a funny game. That’s why we love it. Or at least that’s why most fans love it; Royals fans love it because we’re suckers.

Today I want to focus on a development which I feel hasn’t received nearly enough attention so far: namely, that with Gordon out for at least a few weeks and possibly the season, his replacement at third base has been…Mark Teahen.

This is an extraordinarily significant development, in my mind, because it means Gordon’s days as a third baseman are numbered if they’re not already over. While Gordon’s future at the plate is a matter of some question, there’s really no question that his glovework has massively regressed. As a rookie, Gordon’s defense was as terrible as his offense the first two months of the season, but he righted himself the rest of the way and was pretty solid the final half of the season. Our Baseball Prospectus metrics ranked Gordon as 2 runs below average on defense at third base, a promising number given that he was around 8 runs below average at mid-season. Coming into the season, I felt that he could handle the defensive demands of the hot corner for at least a few more years.

As recently as two months ago, when the Royals moved Mike Moustakas from shortstop to third base, I openly questioned why they didn’t consider moving him behind the plate, both because he has the body type and athleticism to be a catcher, but also because the Royals already had a long-term solution at his new position. But over the last two months Gordon has been just awful on defense – he has the lateral range of a tree stump, and has supplemented that with a blizzard of errors the last few weeks. BP evaluates Gordon’s defense this year as 18 runs below average, and that’s with five weeks left in the season. The defense on the left side of the infield is a major reason why the Royals, as a team, rank a disappointing 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency.

Up until this weekend, my thinking was that if Gordon could just hang on for two more years, Moustakas would probably be ready for the majors by 2011 if not sooner. But the Royals have decided they can’t wait, and I can’t say I blame them. Let’s be clear about this: even if Gordon’s out the rest of the year, there’s no way that the Royals move Teahen back to third base – a position he hasn’t played in two seasons, and wasn’t that proficient at before he moved – if Gordon’s simply going to take over again next season. The Royals have a perfectly acceptable band-aid in Esteban German who could fill in for a few weeks if need be.

No, if the Royals are moving Teahen back to third – after already moving him from third base to right field, from right field to left field, and from left field to first base – then they must be seriously considering the idea of making him the starting third baseman in 2009, and they want to see if he can still handle the position. It’s a gamble, certainly; Teahen wasn’t exactly Ryan Zimmerman over there to begin with. (BP’s metrics calculated Teahen’s defense as -10 runs as a rookie, but +7 runs as a sophomore.)

But I think the Royals have to try him there, if for no other reason than to decide whether he’s worth keeping around for next year at all. The guy’s hitting .246 with 10 homers, and a corner outfielder with those kinds of numbers isn’t worth paying a few million dollars a year – which is what Teahen will earn in arbitration. On the other hand, a third baseman with those numbers is worth keeping around, particularly if you think he can improve on those numbers and (more importantly) you don’t have any better options.

The question, then, is what to do with Gordon. What the Royals can not do is move him to first base. Gordon still fits into the Royals’ long-term plans, but if they park him at first base for the next four-plus years, then suddenly you have an enormous logjam between him, Butler, and Kaaihue, without even mentioning Eric Hosmer or any number of random minor league hitters who might develop over the next few years.

Gordon, on the other hand, would fit in nicely in the outfield. He has decent speed – he’s 21-for-27 in basestealing attempts in his career – and his bat would play well at either corner, particularly if he continues to develop. Teahen moved the outfield two years ago and did fine out there, and Gordon’s supposed to have the stronger arm and better athleticism of the two.

Of course, that’s why Teahen moved to the outfield instead of Gordon in the first place. It’s an admission of wrongdoing for the Royals to have them switch places after two years. But you play the game with the players you have. Gordon has been a disappointment in a number of ways – when he was drafted as the shining light of the three great collegiate third baseman in 2005, he was supposed to have Zimmerman’s glove and Ryan Braun’s bat, but it turned out he has Zimmerman’s bat and Braun’s glove.

But Gordon is who he is, and whining about it doesn’t help anyone. It also turns out that Teahen is a more versatile and more athletic player than we thought he was two years ago. So at this point, it’s worth finding out if he can handle third base again, and we won’t know if he can until he tries. We already know that Gordon can’t.