Saturday, September 13, 2008

Looking to 2009: The Pitchers, Part 2

I hope that one day, years from now, when the Royals are in a good place and we can all have a good laugh at the 2K Royals, we’ll look on September 12th, 2008 as the day the team’s persistent and criminal neglect of plate discipline finally reached its nadir. Last night, the Royals managed to rap out 11 hits and five runs with the help of a three-run ninth. The team sent 37 hitters to the plate. Yet somehow the Indians threw just 98 pitches in the entire game.

Thirty-seven batters. Ninety-eight pitches. It goes without saying that, for the second straight game, the Royals didn’t draw a walk – but they didn’t even see a three-ball count. They have six walks in their last seven games. And the beat goes on.

(And then there’s this gem from Dick Kaegel’s game recap: “Although Royals manager Trey Hillman was rather satisfied with his batters' approach, Lee found them a bit overanxious.”)

Anyway…we need to figure out who should occupy the last three slots of the rotation for next year. For the #3 and #4 slots, at least, my answers won’t be all that interesting: they’re the same guys who occupied those slots this year.

Brian Bannister has thrown 165.2 innings this year; he threw 165 innings last year, so we can make a pretty easy comparison. Compared to 2007, Bannister has struck out far more batters (106 to 77) and walked a few more batters (54 to 44). Do 29 more strikeouts make up for 10 more walks? I’d say so. Assuming that approximately 30% of balls in play turn into hits, then 29 more strikeouts = 29 fewer balls in play = 8.7 fewer hits. A few of those hits will be doubles and triples, but even if they’re all singles, you’d rather give up 10 walks than 8.7 singles.

It’s obviously not that simple. While Bannister’s altered approach this season has benefited his strikeout-to-walk ratio, it’s come at the expense of way too many fly balls. Bannister gave up 15 homers last season; he’s given up 27 this year, an enormous difference that can’t be chalked up to mere randomness. His groundball/flyball ratio, which was 1.13 last season – roughly league-average – has dropped to 0.95 this year, which is solid flyball territory. For most of the season, Bannister has tried to record more strikeouts by throwing to blow four-seam fastballs up in the zone past hitters. He has succeeded to some degree, but that success has come at too great a cost: four-seam fastballs with average velocity quickly become souvenirs if they aren’t located just right.

As Bannister has become more flyball oriented, not surprisingly, he has become far more dependent on his home park, as Kauffman Stadium is one of the best places for a flyball pitcher to ply his trade. Bannister actually has a lower ERA at home this year (3.55) than last (4.32). But last season, he pitched even better on the road, with a 3.48 ERA and just 7 homers allowed in 88 innings. This year, he has a 9.63 ERA on the road, and away from Kauffman Stadium he has allowed 14 homers in 62 innings.

(P.S. Remember all that talk about how good Bannister was in the daytime? His ERA in day games this year is now higher than at night, 5.89 to 5.76. As a general rule of thumb: when a player has a marked performance split in a small sample size for no obvious reason, the most likely explanation is no explanation at all.)

Bannister knows these splits as well as you and I, and so it’s not a surprise that after his 10-run debacle at Yankee Stadium last month, he decided that the cure was worse than the disease. He has stated he’s going back to using his two-seamer more often, giving up contact in exchange for power. He was doing much better with this approach until his last start, when he got dinked for 10 hits in Minnesota.

Which is, of course, the biggest difference between this year and last. Last year, batters hit .262 on balls in play; this year, they’re hitting .310. There was no way that Bannister could sustain his BABIP from last season, and it would be silly to act surprised that he hasn’t. The upshot of this is that Bannister really hasn’t pitched that much worse than he did last year. He’s given up a lot more homers, but otherwise his performance is the same. Of course, when you strip away the BABIP factor, Bannister didn’t pitch all that well last year to begin with.

Last season, I told anyone who would listen regarding Bannister that it was time to sell high. Now that the market correction has come, it’s time to buy low. I don’t think Bannister will ever be as good a pitcher as he appeared to be last season, a legitimate #2 starter. But I think he can be as good a pitcher as he really was in 2007: a league-average pitcher, a guy who can give you 200 innings with an ERA in the mid-4s.

Bannister learned this season that he can’t be something he’s not, that he can’t be a power pitcher just because he wants to be. But you know what? There are going to be times in the future when he needs a strikeout in a key situation. There are going to be times when he gets ahead 0-2 on a batter and decides to go for the kill instead of subject himself to the vagaries of the batted ball. If Bannister can go back to being the command-and-control finesse pitcher he’s always been, but apply the lessons he’s learned this year to dial it up a notch when he needs to, he’s going to bounce back just fine.

Now is not the time for the Royals to cut bait. If Bannister has another year like 2008 in 2009, then it will be time to find a replacement. I think it would be a mistake to not give him another opportunity to put the lessons he learned this year into practice.

Luke Hochevar is a very different pitcher than Bannister, owing to his excellent sinker, but his performance this year was equally uninspiring. In Hochevar’s case, he definitely deserves another year in the rotation, for a variety of reasons: his age (he turns 25 on Monday), his pedigree, and the fact that even in a rookie season in which he finished with a 5.51 ERA, he surrendered just 12 homers in 129 innings. Opposing batters hit .280/.345/.413 against Cool Hand this year, and those are not numbers which ordinarily lead to a 5.51 ERA.

In his last 13 starts covering 76 innings, Hochevar walked just 15 batters and allowed just 6 homers, but still had a 5.78 ERA in that span. That combination of control and sink is going to be successful in the long run no matter how few batters you strike out – that Chien-Ming Wang territory right there. In the short run, Hochevar did poorly because batters hit .338 against him with runners in scoring position. That number will inevitably drop, and so will his ERA. Give him another year of development – let’s remember, this was just his second full pro season – and some regression to the mean, and that ERA could easily drop a run-and-a-half next year.

The #5 starter could be any one of a number of guys. Kyle Davies hasn’t pitched all that well, but you’ll take a 4.70 ERA from your #5 starter any day. The problem is that Davies has been as lucky with his ERA as Hochevar has been unlucky; batters have hit .297/.366/.454 against Davies, which usually results in an ERA in the mid-5s. There isn’t much in Davies’ statistical profile that augurs for more success, other than his age (he’s six days older than Hochevar). I think Davies would serve well as a long man and spot starter, but I think he’s going to falter if given another rotation spot next year.

In his place, the Royals have a number of reasonably good options, and they also have Brandon Duckworth. (In 112 innings with the Royals over the past three years, Ducky has 59 walks and just 58 strikeouts, but has been reasonably successful because he’s allowed just six homers. He’s always been homer-prone in his career – he allowed 23 homers in just 135 innings for Omaha this year – so this defies explanation. Danger, Will Robinson!)

The reasonable options include signing a veteran starter – preferably not one named Brett Tomko – to a one-year deal; going with a youngster like Carlos Rosa or Daniel Cortes; moving Robinson Tejeda back to the rotation (though I personally think that’s a bad idea); or just holding an open tryout in spring training and hoping that someone emerges who’s capable of giving you five decent innings every fifth day.

Or, you know, you could move Joakim Soria into the rotation, a move which would be bold, have the potential for enormous returns, and have a limited downside, because you can always move him back to the bullpen if he struggles in the rotation. Naturally, this means the Royals won’t do it.

The most important point regarding the rotation is that in addition to having two true studs, the Royals don’t have any enormous holes to fill. They have two pitchers who represent a gamble for different reasons, and they have the usual mélange of somewhat unsavory options that every team has for their #5 starter. But they don’t have to go outside the organization for help. Not only that, but they have a number of young pitchers who are nearly ready to step into a rotation role.

Rosa could be ready as soon as spring training if he’s healthy; including a brief stint with the Royals this year, he whiffed 89 batters in 99 innings and allowed just 19 walks, but missed most of the season’s second half with a forearm strain. Cortes needs another full year in the minors, but he’s just 21 and could be a rotation anchor for much of the 2010s. And behind those two there are a number of second-tier prospects, like Blake Wood and Blake Johnson and Julio Pimental, one of who might elevate his game next season and become a legitimate option for the rotation. Then you get to the low minors, where the Royals have as much pitching as all but a few organizations in baseball.

Ultimately, I think that whatever improvement the Royals will make for next year will come on offense, and since the options for improvement through free agency are limited, the Royals will be best-served by trading some of their pitching prospects for immediate help in the lineup. The Royals have a ton of good pitching prospects, but no great pitching prospects; even Cortes projects as a #2 starter in the minds of most scouts. So the loss of any one or two of these guys is unlikely to be crippling. This doesn’t mean the Royals try to replicate their trade of Eric Cordier for Tony Pena Jr. Rather than trade a less buzzworthy prospect for a bandaid solution, the Royals ought to seriously consider trading Cortes or Rosa, or even someone like Dan Duffy, in order to get a legitimate, long-term solution in centerfield or behind the plate.

And ultimately, I think Dayton Moore is going to do something like that. Since he was hired he has spoken about pitching being the currency of baseball. Well, currency only has value if you spend it. Having diligently saved up for the past few years, it might finally be time to splurge a little.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ka'aihue and Hillman.

You know, I want to believe Sam Mellinger when he writes that we shouldn’t be worried that Kila Ka’aihue* isn’t getting more playing time.

*: You’ll notice I added the ‘ in Kila’s name. The ‘ represents a glottal stop, what is known in Hawaiian as the ‘okina. (When you say “uh-oh”, the glottal stop is the hyphen.) Having learned the correct pronunciation of Ka’aihue’s name endears him to me even more, because it turns out we have something in common. The correct transliteration of my last name from the Arabic would actually be Jaza’erli; the letter they call ‘okina in Hawaiian is known as the hamzah in Arabic. My parents elected to simplify the name a little when they came to America – I guess they figured Jazayerli would be hard enough to pronounce without introducing non-Latin letters. But we will be referring to Kila by his phonetically-correct name from now. Glottal stoppers unite!

So yeah, I want to believe that Ka’aihue’s lack of playing time is simply because the Royals want to get a good look at Ryan Shealy, and does not mean that Ka’aihue won’t be the starting first baseman next season. And then Trey Hillman has to open his big mouth.

“I’m not trying to count KK out for a spot next year,” Hillman said. “But he did move two levels this season. He’s getting a taste (in the big leagues).

“Percentages tell us that, typically, you don’t see a guy go Double-A, Triple-A in one year and then be an impact guy (the following year) at what we hope is a slug position at first base.”

Hillman says that he’s not trying to count KK out for a spot next year. Why should he have to say that? When you get to work, does your boss pop into say that he’s not planning to fire you today? When you head to Sonic* for lunch, does your waitress tell you that they didn’t spit in your meal that day? You don’t try to reassure the fans that you’re “not trying to count KK out” unless you’re seriously thinking about counting KK out.

*: I love living in Chicago, because no matter how big a metropolis it is, the city still acts like a Midwestern town that’s perpetually star-struck by getting to hang out with the really big cities like LA and New York. I’d like to present, as my exhibit, this article about the biggest new phenomenon to hit Chicago. That’s right, Sonic finally opened their first restaurant in the area.

As it happens, I drive right by this Sonic every day on my way home to work, and can bear witness that it’s been packed every evening since it opened. My exposure to Sonic primarily comes from their weirdly appealing commercials that play incessantly during Royals games, so I’ll have to ask you all for a judgment: is it any good? It certainly looks appealing, but given that I’m fasting for Ramadan, any food item that doesn’t have mold growing off of it looks appealing at the moment.

So why is Hillman so skeptical about Ka’aihue? Because of the “percentages.” And clearly, he’s a guy who knows all about the percentages. Why else would he start Ross Gload against Kevin Slowey yesterday – Gload was 3-for-7 in his career against Slowey! That’s, like, a .429 average! And seven at-bats is a very meaningful sample size!

And what do those percentages say? That “you don’t see a guy go Double-A, Triple-A in one year and then be an impact guy (the following year).” Well, maybe that’s because you don’t see a guy go Double-A, Triple-A the way Ka’aihue went this season, huh Trey?

37 homers. 104 walks. A .315 average. A 1085 OPS. A lot of guys get promoted to Triple-A mid-season; almost none of them put up numbers like those in the process.

I don’t have a comprehensive list of players who have, and I’m pretty certain that Hillman doesn’t either. But just from memory, I can think of one guy who did exactly what Ka’aihue did: he had a monster season as a first baseman at age 24 in Double-A, moved to Triple-A late in the year, then made his major league debut that September. His name was Ryan Howard.

Howard had a better minor league season than Ka’aihue in one respect: he hit more home runs, 46 of them in 131 games, compared to Kila’s 37 in 124 games. But Kila had more walks (104 to 60), a higher batting average (.291), a higher OBP (.456 to .369), a higher OPS (1085 to 1006), and many, many, many fewer strikeouts (67 to 166).

The Phillies decided to do something radical: they didn’t just promote Howard in September, they actually played him a little. In 39 at-bats, he hit .282, with 5 doubles and 2 homers. A nice little debut.

But the next season, they decided to send Howard back down for a little more seasoning; they were happy with their current first baseman. When their starter got hurt in May, Howard got a 12-game trial and didn’t hit very well (.214/.267/.393), so it was back to Triple-A. Finally, their first baseman suffered a season-ending injury at the end of June. Howard, who was putting up ridiculous numbers in the minors (.371/.467/.690), got recalled and hit .296 with 21 homers the rest of the way. He finished with numbers of .288/.356/.567, and despite playing in just 88 games, won Rookie of the Year honors.

The Phillies missed out on some accolades of their own, because they missed the playoffs by a single game. Do you think they regret not promoting Howard sooner? I do, Trey.

But the Phillies had a pretty good excuse. Their incumbent first baseman, the guy they decided to go with instead of Howard at the start of the year, was a guy named Jim Thome. He’s a pretty good hitter. You’re starting Ross Gload, Trey. He isn’t.

Anyone who thinks that Ryan Howard wasn’t ready to be an “impact guy” at “a slug position at first base” that season is a moron. The Phillies didn’t think that; they simply had no way to resolve the dilemma of having two terrific hitters at first base. Even so, they made the wrong decision – well, Jim Thome made the wrong decision to wrench his back – and it cost them a playoff spot.

I guess if there’s a silver lining here, then, it’s that whatever Hillman decides to do at first base, we don’t have to worry about it costing us a playoff spot. In fact, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that we won’t have to worry about a playoff spot for as long as Trey Hillman is in charge of deciding who the first baseman is.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Looking to 2009: The Pitchers, Part 1

Turning our attention to the pitching staff and figuring out who should stay and who should go, two things stand out:

1) There aren’t nearly as many holes that need to be filled as there are on offense.
2) Precisely because of 1), it’s a lot harder to make dramatic improvements simply by replacing dead weight.

For 2009 and 2010, at least, the pitching staff starts with The Epic and The Baseball Jonah. Gil Meche and Zack Greinke each have reached 10 wins, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, except that they’re the first teammates to reach double-digits in wins for the Royals since 1999, which is one of the saddest stats I’ve seen all year. (The Royals didn’t have a single pitcher reach 10 wins in 2004 and 2005. In 2003, they somehow won 83 games with just a single 10-game winner (Darrell May), a single 9-game winner (Chris George, with a 7.11 ERA), and a single 8-game winner (Jose Lima). Sad. Just sad.)

More important than their win totals, which of course are subject to the efforts of their mates on offense and in the pen, are their strikeout totals, which are subject to little other than their own talent. And that talent is quite formidable. Last year, Meche struck out 156 batters in 216 innings. This was easily the most strikeouts by any Royals pitcher since Kevin Appier got hurt after the 1997 season. No other pitcher this decade had been with 20 whiffs of Meche. (Mac Suzuki, of all people, had held the team mark for the decade with 135 Ks in 2000.)

This year, Meche is doing even better, with 158 strikeouts in just 186 innings so far. In 30 fewer innings, he has two more strikeouts. He also has two more walks, but the emphasis on power pitching has paid dividends overall, as his batting average against has dropped from .263 to .250. His ERA has crept up slightly, from 3.67 to 3.96, because he was uncharacteristically (and unsustainably) good with runners in scoring position last year. But as an overall body of performance, Meche has been a tick better in 2008 than in 2007. That’s even more true when you consider his trendline: last season, Meche had a 1.91 ERA in his first nine starts and a 4.36 ERA after that, whereas this year he had an 8.00 ERA in his first five starts, but since then has a 3.28 ERA.

There are still analysts who argue that, however well Meche has pitched, it was a mistake for the Royals to spend 55 million dollars for a free agent that wasn’t going to put them over the top. If you believe in the cold, hard calculus that states that any season that ends before the playoffs is a failure, then that may be true. If Meche is only the difference between 65 wins and 70 wins, then he’s not worth the money.

But at some point, you have to spend money on talent, and trust that eventually you’ll have enough talent to make a playoff run. And as a fan, there’s value in knowing that tonight’s starter is capable of completely shutting down the opposition, no matter how many games out of first place the Royals are. So far Meche’s performance hasn’t impacted the standings one bit. But with three years to go, and with Meche still making the kind of incremental improvements that may presage a complete Jason Schmidt/Chris Carpenter breakout season, I’m still hopeful that he’s going to have an impact on a pennant race at some point before his contract runs out.

When he was signed, one of the biggest complaints about his contract was that, by extending him to five years, the Royals were taking a huge risk that he might get hurt early on and be a dead weight on the payroll for years. Instead, at this point that fifth year looks like a blessing in disguise, because it keeps Meche under contract for 2011, a year that increasingly looks like the Royals first good opportunity for contention.

Meche has more strikeouts than any Royals pitcher had in the previous 11 years, but he doesn’t even lead this year’s team. Greinke does. In 182 innings, Greinke has 167 strikeouts, enough to rank fifth in the league in both Ks and Ks per 9 innings. He’s walked just 52 batters, meaning that he’s just the second starting pitcher since 1991 to post a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3 or better. (The other was Paul Byrd in 2002, when Byrd walked just 38 batters in 228 innings.)

Greinke hasn’t had a true breakout year, partly because he’s given up 21 homers, and partly because his BABIP is an unimpressive .315, leading to more hits than innings pitches. Some of that is bad luck, some of that is bad defense. But the important thing to take away from this is that when you look at the things that are within a pitcher’s control – innings, walks, strikeouts, homers – Greinke has had arguably the best season of any Royals starter this decade.

While Meche is under contract through 2011, Greinke can be a free agent after 2010. I’ve said this a million times, but let’s go ahead and make it a million-and-one: signing Greinke to a long-term deal is Dayton Moore’s #1 priority, whether he realizes it or not. I understand that Moore does not offer long-term deals with his players during the season out of principle, a principle that stems from his days in Atlanta. (Apparently Soria’s long-term deal is an exception because Soria approached the team first.) That’s the only explanation I can muster for why Moore hasn’t put the full-court press on Greinke to sign.

A month from now, Moore needs to do the right thing. Money shouldn’t be a problem; the Royals have enough of it, and the comparable contracts out there suggest that a three-year deal in the range of $11 million per, with an option year for the same, should get it done. Maybe even less; Scott Kazmir, who is very comparable to Greinke in terms of overall value (albeit a very different pitcher) and who, like Greinke, would be a free agent after the 2010 season, signed a three-year extension in May, for $28.5 million ($9.5 million a year) with a fourth-year option for $11 million.

I’d go further and offer Greinke a four-plus-one or (ideally) four-plus-two deal, because while we’re not privy to the current state of Greinke’s mental health, his physical health is stellar for a young pitcher. His mechanics are excellent, he’s reasonably efficient with his pitches, he’s never suffered an arm injury, and the time off in 2006 may have helped keep his arm healthy.

There’s a lot of talk about how the Royals can cash in Greinke this winter, put their rebuilding into overdrive the way the A’s have, maybe walk away with half of the Rangers’ farm system or something. If Greinke won’t sign, that’s an option that has to be considered. But it’s an option of last resort. It’s not just that Greinke has the potential to be a legitimate #1 starter, but that he already is a legitimate #2 starter. So long as Meche and Greinke stay healthy, the Royals’ top two starters can hold their own with the top two starters for every team in baseball.

It’s the other 60% of the rotation that’s a problem. We’ll get to them soon enough.