Apparently, we’ve all been a little too hard on Trey Hillman.
I hesitate to call the following an “apology”. The things that I and others wrote about Hillman’s mystifying usage of Joakim Soria were completely fair based on what we knew at the time – and we had no reason to think that there was more to the story. My column hinting at a hidden injury for Soria was completely tongue-in-cheek, though in retrospect was shockingly accurate (a critic might say it’s the only accurate thing I’ve written this year). But it read as satire precisely because the Royals stuck to their story that the only thing wrong with Soria was the way his manager was using him. Remember, Bob Dutton and Dick Kaegel both asked Hillman, point blank, if there was anything wrong with his closer. The answer at the time was no. The answer two days later was entirely different.
But if I don’t owe Hillman an apology, at least I owe it to say I take it all back. My criticisms may have been entirely fair – but they weren’t entirely accurate. And frankly, while you never want one of your players to be injured, now that the mystery has been revealed this might actually be a best-case scenario.
Soria’s shoulder injury isn’t severe enough to put him on the DL, and while Will Carroll wrote that “I don't feel good about this one,” he admitted that was based more on a feeling than any tangible evidence. And I suspect Will might have changed his mind given that Soria threw off a mound with no problems yesterday.
“[I]t appears quite certain that the Mexicutioner is suffering from an ailment that prevents him from pitching. That is because the alternative explanation is that Trey Hillman has the IQ of a barnyard animal, and I think we can all agree that barnyard animals possess neither the intellect nor the communication skills necessary to obtain a job as major league manager in the first place.”
If Hillman is guilty of anything, it’s deliberately lying about a health issue regarding one of his players in order to gain a competitive edge. That might not be sportsmanship, but it’s certainly gamesmanship. It’s an open issue as to whether teams gain an edge by hiding injury reports, but the relevant issue is that Hillman and
The problem is that, having lied to us already, there’s no reason to trust that Hillman isn’t lying to us again, if not about the extent of the injury, then about the timing. Nonetheless, the facts check out pretty well here. Consider:
1) The Royals claim that the problem with Soria’s shoulder was first noticed when he was warming up on Saturday, April 18th, in anticipation of bailing out Zack Greinke if needed in the ninth (Greinke closed the game out for his first career shutout). This squares with the facts. No one else was warming up alongside Soria in the ninth; if the Royals had been concerned with Soria’s availability prior to that date, they almost certainly would have had someone ready to come in if the go-ahead run had come to the plate.
2) Soria did not appear in a game until April 22nd, when he closed out the ninth against the Indians, but shakily, giving up a walk and single with one out, and a passed ball to put the tying runs in scoring position with two outs, before ending the game on a questionable strike three call against Trevor Crowe.
3) The Royals finally came clean with the injury before the game on Friday, even though (they claimed) Soria had an MRI on his shoulder the following evening which revealed no abnormalities.
The explanation for all of this is pretty straightforward, which is why I’m inclined to believe it. Basically, Soria felt something in his shoulder while warming up on Saturday night. That “something” was evidently not serious enough to keep him from pitching entirely; he would have likely come into the game anyway had Greinke allowed another baserunner. And from Sunday through Wednesday, Soria was evidently available but only for one-inning stints, which explains why Hillman refused to use him in anything other than the holy Ninth Inning Save Situation. Soria finally got into a game on Wednesday, continued to feel soreness the following day, and that’s when the Royals decided to come clean.
And keep in mind, along with a firm timeline that explains all the weird bullpen shenanigans of last week, we have a pretty obvious reason for the injury in the first place: the World Baseball Classic, which resulted in Soria being used for exactly two innings over a two-week span. Soria isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, pitcher to suffer as a result of the unpredictable usage patterns the WBC brings to pitchers at the exact point in the year where they most need predictable work to get their arms ready for the season. Assuming Soria just needs a little rest, we should consider ourselves lucky that the only fallout is a week or two of forced inactivity. Let’s hope that come 2013, the tournament structure will have moved to later in March with a much more compressed schedule, which ought to address the main concerns of too much downtime for relievers (and too many pitchers for starters) too early in spring training.
“Rest assured that there’s no way someone could spend a quarter-century playing, coaching, and managing in professional baseball, and ascend to the highest rank of his profession before he turned 45, and make the decisions that Hillman appeared to make today. It’s simply not possible that Hillman would not use Soria to protect a tight lead, even as the inning was falling apart, just because it was the eighth inning instead of the ninth.”
Last Sunday, Hillman called on Juan Cruz, Ron Mahay, and Jamey Wright with a lead, and Kyle Farnsworth in a tie, while the only sighting of Soria was of him lightly tossing the ball in the bullpen in the eighth. Hillman’s usage of his bullpen that day is consistent with the theory that Soria was available to pitch the ninth inning – if Soria was unavailable to pitch at all, you’d have to figure that Cruz would have been saved for that situation.
If Hillman erred in the way he handled the pen in this game, his error didn’t come in the eighth, when he used Ron Mahay and Jamey Wright as the inning melted down, but in the seventh. If Soria is only available for one inning, why was Hillman so keen on pulling Juan Cruz from the game after only two outs? Cruz should have been left in to face Josh Hamilton, who only represented the tying run, not the go-ahead run. If Cruz retired
“It’s tough to lose a game because Soria came down with AITP at an inopportune time. But in a way it’s a relief to know that the reason the Royals lost yet another game that they had in the bag was simply because of AITP. I mean, if Soria doesn’t have AITP, that means the Royals lost today’s game because their manager is a complete and utter moron. AITP is curable, but I’m afraid there may be no cure for imbecilic bullpen management.”
Ultimately, you have to take some positives from this. Soria really did have AITP. His version of AITP does appear to be curable. Our manager is not a complete and utter moron. And the cure for what appeared to be imbecilic bullpen management may be as simple as the cure for Soria’s achy shoulder – a little bit of rest.
Hillman has made some poor decisions this month, and they certainly can’t all be blamed on Soria’s arm. Opening Day is still on him. But Soria’s injury changes the narrative, from “our manager is actively costing our team a chance at the playoffs” to “our manager has made some bad decisions along with some good decisions, and overall he’s neither an asset nor a liability.” Ultimately, the Royals are 10-10 – that’s a good thing. They’ve allowed the fewest runs in the majors. The offense is dead-average in the American League in walks drawn with 73, which for the Royals represents enormous improvement. They rank a surprising fifth in the league in defensive efficiency despite an infield that will be the subject of a lot of campfire stories this summer.
Hillman’s not perfect. But take away the biggest imperfection on his resume this season, look at the Royals’ performance from a distance, and suddenly his track record looks a lot better. The Royals can survive without Soria for a week or two – hell, the Royals haven’t been in need of his services even once since the injury was revealed. They can’t survive with a manager as dumb a Hillman appeared to be. So let’s all be thankful that Soria should be back soon, and that when he returns, he’ll be under the watchful eye of a manager who’s a little bit smarter than we were all giving him credit for.