Saturday, September 27, 2008

Stat Nugget of the Day: Kyle Davies.

Last night, while the Royals’ hitters were busy chewing up Francisco Liriano and spitting him out like they have so many left-handed pitchers this year*, Kyle Davies was brilliant for his third straight start.

*: Perhaps the least discussed aspect of the Royals this year has been their platoon splits. Against left-handed pitchers this year, the team is hitting .288/.343/.435. Against right-handed hitters, they’re hitting just .260/.310/.381. Against LHP, they have the 5th-best OPS in the league; against RHP, they’re 13th, just a rounding error ahead of the Mariners for last place.

That’s not a fluke. While Gordon’s struggles against southpaws are well-documented, he’s the only left-handed hitter with a pronounced platoon split – DeJesus and Teahen have hit almost equally well against either side. Meanwhile, Jose Guillen, Billy Butler, and Mike Aviles have all crushed left-handed pitching, while the first two at least have struggled badly against RHP. Miguel Olivo is a famed lefty-masher. Even Grudzielanek hit .395 against LHP in limited playing time.

As a team, the Royals are 35-24 when a left-hander** starts against them. Against right-handers, they’re 39-62. Bring back C.C. Sabathia!

**: Against left-handers not named “Cliff Lee”, they’re 35-19. Lee’s five wins against the Royals have been discounted by some people, but maybe they shouldn’t be.

Here are Davies’ last three lines, each of them resulting in a win:

9/15: 8 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 8 K
9/20: 7 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 3 K
9/26: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 8 K

How unusual has this stretch been? A lot more unusual than it should be, certainly. Let’s start with a simple search: find the last time a Royal made three straight starts where he threw at least 6 innings, and allowed no more than 4 hits. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Davies is the first Royal to do so this century. The last Royals with 3 starts of 6 or more IP, and 4 or fewer hits, was Blake Stein in August, 1999.

Stein didn’t win any of his three starts, in part because he walked 12 batters in 21 innings. (Also, that was the year the Royals had arguably the worst bullpen of any team in major league history.) Those were the first three starts Stein made for the Royals after he was acquired from Oakland in the Kevin Appier trade – he wouldn’t have another such start for almost a year.

Davies, on the other hand, hasn’t walked more than two batters in any of his starts. Who was the last Royal with three straight starts with 6 IP, 4 or fewer hits, and 2 or fewer walks?

Appier, who actually had a stretch of four straight starts. In June, 1993. Appier won just two of those four starts, as back then the Royals had the kind of offense you’d expect from a team that thought David Howard was a solid everyday shortstop.

So how about this: when was the last time a Royals pitcher won three consecutive starts (in any number of innings) and allowed no more than 4 hits and 2 walks in each start?

Try never.

Seriously. Never. Kyle Davies is the first pitcher in the 40-year history of the Royals to accomplish what would seem to be a fairly commonplace feat.

I’m not sure how meaningful this is. I mean, the Royals had a pretty fair run of success from 1976 to 1985 without ever having a pitcher accomplish this. (Davies is helped by the fact that starters throw fewer innings today; it’s a lot easier to allow 4 hits in 6 innings than 4 hits in 9 innings.) But I do think that Davies has earned the right to go for four in a row, as a member of the rotation next April.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A September To Remember, Part 2

Laissez les bons temps rouler. The Royals were nine games behind the Tigers two weeks ago, and today they’re in fourth place. They’re like the 1964 Phillies in reverse.

They’ll be hard pressed to keep it. After beating up on teams like Detroit and Seattle, who gave up on their season months ago, now they’ve got three games against a Twins team that has everything to play for, that’s coming off a dramatic sweep of the White Sox to take over first place, and that’s playing at home, where – as usual – they’re almost unbeatable, having gone 52-26 so far this year. (For all the reasons we should be glad we’re saying goodbye to the Metrodome in a few years, the biggest may be this: it has given the Twins an unfair homefield advantage for all these years. Whether it’s the crowd noise, the baseball-colored roof, the manipulation of wind currents…who knows? But this is a team that’s won two World Series – and has never won a World Series game on the road.)

If the Royals can take two of three in this series, they not only will put a serious dent in the Twins’ playoff hopes, they’ll put an exclamation point on their September surge. Those odds would be a lot higher if Hillman hadn’t shut down Zack Greinke prematurely. I understand the decision intellectually, but emotionally, I was really looking forward to watching The Baseball Jonah close out the season, and missing a Chiefs game voluntarily for the first time in years. (No worries on the latter front; I’m sure I’ll come up with another excuse soon enough.)

I despise the White Sox more than any other team, but I must admit that I feel for them a little; they have to be pissed that we’re starting Duckworth instead of Greinke on the mound on Sunday. And honestly, I’m pulling for the Sox a little. As much as I dislike the team as a concept, I can’t help but be impressed with what Kenny Williams has done for the second time in four years. And I think the Twins need to be punished severely for stupidly leaving Francisco Liriano in the minors for so long.

Meting out the punishment tonight will be Kyle Davies, who’s trying to make me regret calling him nothing more than an adequate fifth starter a few weeks ago. In his last two starts, he’s thrown 15 innings, allowed just 7 hits, whiffed 11, and – most pertinently – walked just one batter.

Davies has struggled for so long in the majors that it’s easy to forget: he just turned 25, and he was a competent major league pitcher when he was 21. And it’s not like he’s a finesse pitcher; he throws four good pitches, just not with any particular command. Here are his walk rates in the majors:

2005: 5.03 BB/9
2006: 4.69 BB/9
2007: 4.63 BB/9
2008: 4.11 BB/9

The control is coming around this year…especially since that number I listed for 2008 is just through August 23rd. In his last six starts, he’s walked just six batters in 30 innings, bringing his seasonal rate down to 3.45 BB/9, or roughly league-average. If that’s a real improvement, and it probably is, then there may be hope for him yet. I’ll say this much: he was worth 8 innings of Octavio Dotel.

His brilliant outing against Seattle – 8 innings, four hits, no walks, 8 Ks – garnered him a Game Score of 82. That ties him for the fifth-best outing of any Royals pitcher since 1998 (i.e. the post-Appier era). Greinke’s two-hit outing against the White Sox last September ranks higher, but then, the other three games were pitched by Brian Anderson, Pat Rapp, and Jeff Suppan. So I’m not sure how meaningful this is.

Aside from Davies, the players most responsible for the team’s success on the mound in September (the team ERA is 3.71 this month, 50 points better than any other month this year) include the usual suspects: Greinke has a 2.18 ERA, and Meche is at 3.96 with 28 Ks in just 25 innings. Soria recovered from his brief August swoon with 9.1 scoreless innings. Ramon Ramirez has allowed one run in 8.2 innings. But aside from them, some other pitchers have fared unusually well:

- Jimmy Gobble returned from Omaha and has delivered 5.2 scoreless innings, enough to lower his ERA more than two runs – all the way down to 9.20. In his defense, he’s thrown 30.1 innings all year – eliminate his July 21st meltdown against the Tigers, when he gave up 10 runs in an inning, and his ERA would be 6.44. Not much of a defense – “but my ERA would be less than six-and-a-half if you took out my worst outing!”

If there’s a reason for optimism here, it’s that Gobble has done his job well this year, if you define his job strictly as “retire left-handed hitters.” They’re 12-for-61 against him, an overall line of .192/.246/.295. The problem is that RHB have hit .388/.523/.687 – Albert Pujols on a tear, basically – all year, and he’s actually faced more RHB (88) than LHB (65). He’s never shown that pronounced a split before, so I’m not sure what to make of it. LOOGY relievers like Gobble are prone to having seasons with stratospheric ERAs, simply because the nature of the job results in small sample sizes. Here’s Alan Embree’s seasonal ERAs from 2003 to 2007: 4.25, 4.13, 7.62, 3.27, 3.97. Gobble’s had a terrible year, but if the Royals want to give him a mulligan, I won’t protest too much.

- Speaking of mulligans…can John Bale get two in a row? Last year he didn’t debut until July 15th, but pitched pretty well the second half (4.05 ERA in 40 innings), enough that the Royals decided to try him as a starter this year. That went, ahem, poorly, and then he missed most of the year with a series of injuries, the first of which was self-inflicted. A month ago he was as good as gone. Only he returned this month and has thrown 10.1 scoreless innings, allowed just four hits and two walks. His two-year contract that he signed while in Japan expires, but he’s still arbitration eligible. Given how little he’s pitched, it’s unlikely an arbitrator will award him a raise from $2 million a year. My feeling is that you keep either Gobble or Bale, but not both, unless something bad happens to Ron Mahay. But I don’t think the Royals need to spend money on a lefty reliever in the market either.

- Leo Nunez came back from his oblique pull in mid-July and was awful for five weeks, allowed 21 hits and 7 walks in 13 innings through August 19th. Since then he’s righted the ship, allowed three runs and eight hits in 12.2 innings, with 7 Ks and just one walk. Nunez’s repertoire is pretty basic: his fastball has very good velocity and he controls it very well, but it’s very straight. He’s the perfect middle reliever, in other words; I’ve been comparing him to Julian Tavarez since he was a rookie, and I won’t stop now. Nunez’s ERA has improved three straight years, and he just turned 25 (he was born in the second half of 1983, like seemingly half the pitching staff.) I don’t know that he’s going to get any better than he is today, but what he is today is pretty good. Especially since he’s only the third-best right-handed reliever on the team.

- I have to mention Brandon Duckworth because of the perception that he’s pitched well since taking over from Luke Hochevar. But he hasn’t. His ERA is 5.06, and he’s lucky it’s that low; he’s got as many walks (15) as strikeouts, and while he’s 3-2, all three wins have come against the Tigers and Mariners. It’s great if you can stash a guy like Duckworth in Triple-A for emergencies. But if you’re breaking the glass before the season even begins, you’re in trouble.

- Yasuhiko Yabuta has allowed one run in 5.1 innings. That’s the sound of crickets you hear.

- Devon Lowery has allowed homers in his last two outings, and has allowed six baserunners in 3.1 innings. But he’s also struck out six batters. The biggest surprise with Lowery is simply that he made it to the majors at all with the Royals; he was a prospect of some note in 2004, but over the next three years his ERAs in the minors were 6.06, 5.73, and 7.94. I believe he had some injury issues, and he pitched pretty well as a full-time reliever in the minors this season, but the most compelling reason to be optimistic about his future is that the Royals never gave up on him despite many reasons to. He’s a candidate for the 6th or 7th spots in the bullpen next year, along with about a dozen other guys.

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.” Bart Giamatti wrote the truth. The way the Royals have played this month, at least when the games come to a sudden halt on Sunday, we’ll have some pleasant memories – and the hope that September wasn’t an illusion, but a harbinger of things to come – to keep us company through the fall and winter to come.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A September To Remember

The Royals are now 15-7 in the month of September, and you have to be a Royals fan to appreciate the magnitude of that. From 1999 through 2008, a span of 10 years, the Royals have had a grand total of nine winning months (counting March as April and October as September). Here, let’s just run all of them:

May 2000: 14-12
August 2000: 15-14
April 2003: 16-7 (+ 1-0 in March)
June 2003: 15-12
July 2003: 15-11
June 2007: 15-12
July 2007: 13-12
June 2008: 16-11
September 2008: 15-7

When the Royals won 16 games in June, who knew it was for just the second time this decade? With just two wins in their last four games – and Meche and Greinke both get one more start each – the Royals will have won 17 games in a calendar month for the first time since August, 1995. How long ago was that? The Royals got a huge spark that month from the major league debut of Johnny Damon.

So it’s been a good month. Good enough that if they win three of their last four games, they’ll meet my projection of 75 wins for the year. Good enough that the Royals have a real shot of finishing out of last place if they beat the Tigers tomorrow. And good enough that we may need to re-evaluate some of the players who have been key to this hot stretch.

I’ve already discussed Shealy, so let’s take a look at some of the other performances this month (numbers not including today’s game):

- DeJesus has hit .395/.440/.580 this month, and .307/.365/.453 overall. Barring a late collapse he’s almost sure to hit .300 for the first time, which is nice, but overall this doesn’t change the calculus on him too much. He’s a nice player and a valuable asset, but I can’t help but think he’d be more valuable to another team with a gaping hole in centerfield (Jon Heyman reports the Yankees are interested). The trick is that the Royals need to focus on acquiring offense this winter, so unless they can trade DeJesus for a masher in one of the corners (Corey Hart, maybe?) or a catcher (Jon Daniels, please pick up the white courtesy phone), it’s unlikely that trading DeJesus is going to improve the team, at least in the short term. Maybe Moore will surprise us.

- Jose Guillen (.380/.430/.557 in September, .267/.304/.446 overall) is back on the upward slope of the sine curve. You can break Guillen’s season down into four parts:

1) Fat slob out of spring training, 3/31 – 5/5: .165/.198/.306
2) In shape, 5/6 – 6/23: .380/.391/.659
3) Hurt but refuses to come out of the lineup, 6/24 – 8/23: .170/.234/.257
4) In shape, 8/24 – today: .352/.398/.552

That’s a streaky player. And streakiness is, on the whole, a good thing if it means that you can harness the good streaks and minimize the bad ones. We know that Guillen, when healthy and motivated, can still be a force in the middle of the lineup. If the Royals can keep him healthy and motivated for 162 games next season, he’ll have a great year, and Trey Hillman will deserve to be Manager of the Year, because no manager has managed to figure out how to do that yet.

The Royals are stuck with him for next year, so Hillman needs to figure out how to handle his prima donna. If Guillen shows up overweight next spring, we’ll know we’re in for another long season. “So-and-so is in the best shape of his career!” stories abound in February. If so-and-so happens to be Jose Guillen, it might actually mean something.

- Mark Teahen (.329/.354/.532, .256/.314/.405) continues to be a tease. Just when we all wrote him off, now he’s back to tantalize us with dreams of 2006 again. And it happens to coincide with his sort-of-return to third base. I believe it’s coincidence. For one thing, he actually hasn’t hit that well when playing third base; his numbers this year are .254/.280/.423 with three homers in 19 games. (He was playing right field in his two-homer game.) And it’s the rare player who definitively hits better playing one position over another – particularly while playing the more demanding defensive position. (The only example I can think of is Frank Thomas, who typically hit much better when playing first base than when used as a DH.)

Should we be worried about the possibility that Teahen plays third base next year? Absolutely, if only because it means that Alex Gordon might move to first base. (And you all thought I was crazy for suggesting that Gordon’s days at third were numbered.) If Gordon moves to first base next year, then Moore and Hillman deserve to be fired. Preferably from a cannon.

I think (hope?) that Teahen’s play at third base has served two purposes: to convince the Royals that he can play the position if need be, and to convince other teams that he can play the position if need be. Teahen’s combination of defensive versatility, broad (if not deep) offensive skills, and relatively young age still make him a valuable commodity. Few players can handle all four corner positions and hit like Teahen, and Teahen even did a decent job of handling center field a few times last season. If Moore can use this hot stretch to market him as a third baseman, great. If he’s playing third base for the Royals on Opening Day, either Gordon’s hurt or someone in the front office will be.

- Callaspo (.315/.346/.438, .313/.368/.383) has done what he’s done all year, although in fairness if you go back to August 23rd (when he returned from the Drunken List) he’s hit an impressive .337, with just four strikeouts in 101 at-bats. Callaspo needs to hit .300 to have value, because he has no power – he has yet to hit a homer in almost 400 major league at-bats – and while he has tremendous bat control, he doesn’t have great patience at the plate. He’s walked 18 times in 201 at-bats this year, 31 in 387 in his career, a rate that is consistent with his minor league record. If he hits .300 he can muster a .350 OBP and have value; if he hits .270 he’s a utility player who can’t handle shortstop, which is useless.

He’s still just 25, and he’s shown enough this year that the Royals ought to leave well enough alone and let him be the starting second baseman next year. I’d go even further, and lead him off. His lack of power won’t be a problem, it will encourage him to take pitches and get on base, and you can’t hit into a double play leading off an inning. (As a contact hitter with no power and no speed, Callaspo is a huge DP threat.)

- Esteban German (.316/.350/.421, .251/.306/.346). German really hasn’t had much to do with the September surge; I just wanted to point out that his horrendous start to the season obscures the fact that he’s played at a 2006-07 level for the last three months. He was sparingly used for the first three months and started the season 10-for-66 with just four walks. Since June 29th, in a lot more playing time (145 at-bats), he’s hit .297/.354/.421. He may not be the Esteban German that was arguably the best utility player in baseball in 2006, but he still has value. There are a lot of things the Royals can do with him this winter – simply releasing him should not be one of those options.

- Alex Gordon (.296/.367/.566, .257/.350/.427) also homered and singled tonight, giving him hits in all eight games since he’s returned. It’s a small sample size, but I continue to hold fast to my belief that he’s about to take a big step forward, and he’s done nothing to make me question my faith in him this month.

- Kila Ka’aihue (.278/.350/.444) has just 20 plate appearances, which include four singles, two walks, just one strikeout, and one very impressive homer. I’m only mentioning him here so I can link to it. It’s just one swing, and I am not a scout, but man…that’s a beautiful sight. Gavin Floyd is prone to the homer because his fastball is straight, but he has pretty good velocity, and that pitch was high and a little outside – you need some serious bat speed to yank that pitch into the right field bleachers. I feel a man-crush coming on.

Pitchers to follow.