Thursday, September 18, 2008

Royals Today: 9/18/2008.

Well, this was unexpected.

A week ago today, a BP colleague sent me a message, unbidden, just to rail about the Royals' unprofessional approach at the plate.

"17 outs in 18 batters on 53 pitches. That's less than three pitches a batter. I don't care who you're facing...that's a team quitting right in front of you.

Maybe the Dayton Moore Era should be the end of baseball in Kansas City. I'm sorry, Rany, but if you contracted the Marlins and Royals, MLB would probably be a better place.”

What could I say? No team should make 17 outs in the span of 53 pitches unless the stadium is on fire and they need to evacuate. But the Royals won that game, amusingly enough, beating Francisco Liriano thanks to five shutout innings from the bullpen. They lost the next night, but still managed to score five runs off Cliff Lee, only the fourth time this year that’s happened. They still managed to see just 98 pitches all game, and I wrote then that I hoped “we’ll look on September 12th, 2008 as the day the team’s persistent and criminal neglect of plate discipline finally reached its nadir.”

They haven’t lost since. They’ve won seven games in a row for the first time since Jeremy Affeldt and Runelvys Hernandez shared the mantle of staff ace, since Carlos Beltran manned center field, since Angel Berroa was a budding Rookie of the Year. Today, they completed a sweep of the Mariners with a 12-0 beating, and drew eight – count ‘em, eight – walks.

Yeah, I didn’t see that coming.

In the process, the Royals may have changed the story arc of their season. Suddenly the Royals have matched last season’s win total of 69 with nine games left to go. Before the season I predicted 73 wins, then upped that total to 75 wins after Greinke had a terrific spring training (an adjustment that seems prescient in light of how well he’s pitched.) At 69-84 with nine games left, 73-89 is well within reach; 75-87 is a worthy goal to shoot for. With two more wins, the Royals will have had their first winning September since 1996.

A week ago, we had good reason to worry that Trey Hillman was losing the clubhouse. Today, we can at least hold out hope that whatever damage has been done to his reputation with his players is not irreversible. Teams that have tuned out their manager don’t win seven straight games in September. Hillman didn’t handle his latest spat with Jose Guillen optimally – if he was sick, then say he’s sick, and if he’s not, you still say he’s sick – but at least he handled it better than in his previous attempts, which essentially amounted to holding Guillen to a different standard than the other 24 guys in the locker room.

A seven-game winning streak cures a lot of ills. And these seven wins haven’t been barnburners either – all seven wins have been by 3 runs or more, and two were by double digits. The Royals have outscored their opponents, 55 to 15, in that span. If this streak happened to start on Opening Day, we’d all be lining up to buy playoff tickets now. It’s probably best that it’s come in the middle of September, when we have the context to put it in the proper perspective.

And let’s not overlook the fact that the last four wins have come against the Mariners, who are hurtling towards 100 losses and a permanent place on the list of Worst Teams For The Money Of All Time. (The Mariners’ payroll on Opening Day clocked in around $117 million.) The Royals’ other hot stretch this season – winning 11 of 12 in June – came exclusively against NL teams. So all we’ve learned is that the Royals can beat up on inferior opponents. That’s certainly progress – the Royals couldn’t beat up on anybody the last four years – but it’s just the first step.

No one has been more impactful over the last week than Ryan Shealy, who – I know you guys all knows this – has hit twice as many homers (6) since he was called up two weeks ago as Ross Gload as hit (3) all season. Shealy has hit five homers in the seven-game winning streak, and thanks to him, the aggregate numbers for the team’s first baseman in all games this year - .281/.324/.400 with 13 homers and 63 RBIs – are merely bad instead of execrable. (As a team, the Royals are neck-and-neck with the Rangers’ first basemen (.245/.310/.415) in OPS, and well ahead of Seattle and Oakland. A’s first basemen – mostly Daric Barton – have combined to hit .222/.307/.348.)

Far be it for me to splash the cold water of reason on the giddy excitement over Shealy’s performance, but I remain skeptical. This is the same guy who hit .221/.286/.308 in nearly 200 plate appearances last year. More to the point – since Shealy was dealing with some injury issues last year – this is the same guy who hit .283/.376/.503 in Omaha this year, and those numbers don’t translate to much more than a .250 hitter with some walks and 15-20 homer power. Two hot weeks in the majors doesn’t change the calculus that much.

In 155 major league games, Shealy has a career line of .274/.335/.435. That’s a reasonable expectation of what he’ll do over a full season. It’s not awful, but it’s not anything to get excited about.

There is at least some reason to hope that a healthy Shealy is capable of better than that, given that he played hurt last season, and given that he hit just .222/.295/.470 through the end of May this year before turning it on in Omaha. Two days ago, I wrote to a friend, “I’m happy to see Shealy playing and playing well, but color me skeptical until he hits a home run off someone who can throw 95, as the knock against Shealy has been that he has a slow bat. His four shots this year have come off Jeremy Sowers, Tom Mastny, Brian Bullington, and Gio Gonzalez. Not exactly flamethrowers.” That night, Shealy went deep against Brandon Morrow, who throws 95 and then some. So maybe Moore’s not just blowing smoke when he talks about Shealy having better bat speed this year.

I have previously argued strenuously that the Royals should be giving Kila Ka’aihue more playing time, and I stand by that argument. But the crux of that argument was that playing Gload over Ka’aihue (or Shealy) was a case of criminal negligence. The Royals know what they have in Gload; they have no idea what they have in Ka’aihue, and they need to find out. But they also need to find out what they have in Shealy, and with even more urgency given his age.

I remain intensely curious to see what Ka’aihue can do with the stick, and his brief appearances this year (4 hits in 11 at-bats, two walks and just one strikeout) only whet my appetite further. But I can see the wisdom of sending him back to Omaha next season and proving that he can do it again, while giving Shealy one last shot as an everyday player in the majors. If Shealy flops like he did in 2007, Ka’aihue can be plugged in as the starter come June. So long as Gload continues to be used much the way he’s been used in September (13 plate appearances all month), there’s no wrong answer here.

Maybe that’s why I can’t get all that enthused about Shealy. Not because he’s not playing well, or that he can’t continue to play well, but simply that his performance this month simply reminds us how ridiculous it is that the Royals waited until September to see what he could do. Moore and Hillman simply could not find a place on a 25-man roster for Shealy – they had to wait until rosters expanded to 40, because how could they find a place for a first baseman who can hit for power when they’re carrying Gload and Joey Gathright and Tony Effing Pena?

The Royals started the season 23-37 before they decided that maybe they should find a replacement in the lineup for Pena and his .156 average. Mike Aviles became the starting shortstop on June 6th, and the Royals would win 14 of their next 20 games; overall the Royals are 46-47 since Aviles took over at shortstop. The Royals were 57-79 at the end of August, when they decided that maybe they could do better than Gload and his three homers at first base. Since then, they’re 11-5, and even that record is deceptive, because Gload has started four times this month and the Royals won just one of those games. Shealy has started 11 games for the Royals since he was called up – the Royals are 10-1 with him in the lineup.

And that’s what all this is about, right? It’s about winning games. It’s not about having the best glove at first base or at shortstop – it’s about scoring more runs than your opponents, and a run created on offense is as valuable as a run saved on defense. If Pena’s glove was really so valuable, the Royals wouldn’t have won more games when he was replaced. If Gload’s glove was so valuable, the Royals wouldn’t have gone on a hot streak the moment he was benched.

Never underestimate the power of common sense. It never ceases to amaze me how much time teams devote to details like “fundamentals”, and how little time they devote to big-picture issues like, say, the fact that you can’t win with a shortstop whose batting average peaked at .200 on Opening Day, and hasn’t been over .182 since, or the fact that you can’t win with a first baseman who hits .270, walks once a week, and hits a home run every other month.

The difference between having Pena and Gload start every day in April, and having Aviles and Shealy start every day in September, is on the order of 100 runs (and 10 wins) over the course of a full season. That’s the difference between a 65-win team and a 75- win team. If the Royals can figure out a way to squeeze another 10 wins from somewhere else, they’ll be over .500 and closing in on contention. The next 10 wins will be a lot harder, of course, although finding a catcher who can hit and making sure Joey Gathright never bats 300 times again is a good place to start. But at least the easy part is over. At least it seems like it was easy. Something this easy shouldn’t have taken the Royals almost an entire season to figure out.

(I spent 30 minutes trying to get this article to post right, and I've still ended up with an article where the font size and line spacing changes three or four times for no reason. If anyone has any tips on how to use Blogger better - or a suggestion on a better service to use - I'm all ears.)