Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mea Culpa. (Sort of.)

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 Moore thought this would gain them an edge. They wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they weren’t trying to find one. (On the other side of the Truman Sports Complex, a couple of newly hired forty-somethings nod their head approvingly.)

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 Hamilton, he was in fine position to pitch through the eighth and hand the ball directly off to Soria with an off-day coming. If Hamilton reached base, Cruz would still get to face the right-handed Andruw Jones – a matchup that definitely favored the pitcher.

“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.”

Um, yeah.

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.

34 comments:

Jeff Parker said...

Fair enough but keep in mind he brought in Farnsworth over Tejeda so counting mis-using Cruz that day he made two crucial non-Soria mistakes.

Anonymous said...

Rany, can you do some guest writing at BP about Greinke's start? I don't see much "ink" there devoted to the best pitcher in baseball after the first month.

drewfuss said...

zack seems to be missing a little zip on the fastball tonight. hopefully it's the conditions or by design, and not due to fatigue or anything very, very bad developing. gotta like the saberhagen-like change and the wicked breaking ball, though!

Casper said...

Wish I could get back on board with Hillman right now, but it's going to take a little more than admitting he was lying to us to convince me that barnyard animals are any brighter than he is. Hope I'm wrong about him.

Kyle said...

I have a goofy idea. Keep in mind that I had 1 commercial break and about 6 drinks to think this over:

The Royals have this game in the bag (they're up 10-2 after 5).

**Take Zach out. He's already qualified for his 5th win of the year.

**Pitch Davies tomorrow and let him throw 90-100 pitches regardless of the amount of innings (hopefully it's around 7)

**Skip Ponson's start.

**Pitch Bannister against the Twins. It may be short rest, but if he struggles, you have Ponson to COME OUT OF THE BULLPEN.

**Start Gil...he only pitched 3.2 innings his last start, so he should be able to pitch.

**Start Zach (since, in my world, he only went 5 innings in his last outing).

**Pitch Davies

**Ponson is gone... and here is LUKE HOCHEVAR!

**You've got a playoff-caliber 5-man rotation all set up (Meche, Greinke, Davies, Hochevar, Bannister).

Keep in mind that this is assuming Gil is okay.

Carl Willingham said...

Don't get too crazy about Hillman, he's still not the brightest bulb. He left his franchise pitcher who just pitched 2 complete games in a row and let him throw 111 pitches with a 9 run lead. If Ramirez can't pitch in this game then why is he on the roster. Second, the umpire was awful tonight, only a pitcher with Grienke's stuff can get by when Brian Winters is behind the plate. Made Grienke's night much tougher than it had to be by never ringing anyone up.

chuckodb said...

Great game tonight! I agree about the strike zone tonight Carl. The fact that Zach still had that many K's really shows just how good the kid is! Great to see Butler hit for power. Hey we're heading into the last day of April tied for first...hard to complain too much about Hillman.

Curtis said...

Kyle, I think you are nuts.

If there were an off day sprinkled in, then maybe some of what you said made sense. But there aren't. Gil came out because his back hurt, and so the last thing we want to do is run him out there on short rest.

The goal is to maximize wins between now and Halloween, not now and Cinco de Mayo.

I agree that this revelation does mean that Hillman has been better than we thought, though admittedly that is a low bar. And how much of the defensive efficiency ranking is due to the fact that the Teahen as second baseman idea lasted three games due to injuries?

BornBredBlue said...

* Trey Hillman has the IQ of a barnyard animal

* Hillman refused to use him in anything other than the holy Ninth Inning Save Situation

* because their manager is a complete and utter moron ... I’m afraid there may be no cure for imbecilic bullpen management

* Hillman has made some poor decisions this month

* They can’t survive with a manager as dumb a Hillman appeared to be

---------

Thanks for the fodder, Rany. (regardless of whether or not it was all taken in context!)

I'm not giving Hillman a pass. I think it was an interview of one of the BP guys on WHB810 that said a manager statistically contributes to about +/-3 wins per season. I would guess that one, perhaps a maximum of 2, of the 6 divisions in baseball are decided by more than 3 games each year. Which means the other 4 or 5 divisions make the playoffs, or don't, potentially based on the performance of their manager over the course of the season. A stretch? Maybe... Of course, a team has to be in contention first, but you get the idea.

I am NOT ready to give Hillman a pass yet. Opening day, 1. Misuse of Cruz, 2. Boneheaded defensive alignments/replacements, 3. (How we are 2nd in the league in fielding percentage has GOT to be smoke and mirrors.) Letting Greinke go 111 pitches with an 8 run lead, 4. I could probably go on.

Honestly, if you give Hillman +1 for every good decision, and -1 for every bad one, where do you think he ends up at the end of teh season? Let me give you a hint: I think it would be to the left of zero. And he doesn't get points for putting Soria in the ninth with a 2-run lead or pinch running for Butler in the eighth. Those are no brainers.

Let's wait and see... wait and see...

BornBredBlue said...

Other quick comments:

-Greinke is sick good. Scary good. I can't get enough. It's like must-see TV. Every pitch is entertainment. Right now he looks like he can do anything he wants to do. (But in true Greinke style, looks like he could care less.)

-Good to see Butler out of the pits and go off tonight. Aviles with a few hits as well.

-If, if, if, if.... If the offense can get more consistent and put up relatively average numbers. This could get interesting. DeJesus back around .290, Guillen contributing, Butler over .270, and Aviles .250 or better... Then we can start talking.

-Any early season speculation about the Royals making moves and getting a mid-season bat? I know we broke the bank on Farnsworth and Ramirez, but PLEASE Mr. Glass, if we're in the running as the break approaches, PLEASE give Kansas City a Christmas gift in July. Holliday? Dunn? Bonds? Help me out here...

Nathan said...

Off topic to follow, while watching the video of tonight's game.

Does Frank White think anyone should pull a ball, ever? I love his insights about pitching and defense, but all he says about most of the hitters, every single game, is that they have to go up the middle and to the opposite field. OK, there's probably some truth to that, hitters can certainly get pull happy from time to time. But from listening to White, you'd think Ted Williams needed to change his approach, because his strength is really up the middle and the other way.

Sorry for the rant, but I really can't believe it that he's just said this over and over and over again every inning for all of April. Again, I love Frank and appreciate his thoughts on just about every other aspect of the game. But geez...give it a rest!

I agree with the consensus about the strikezone, at least for the first few innings I've seen so far.

Ryan said...

You have to wonder how the World Baseball Classic might have affected Soria's shoulder.

Nathan said...

Carl,

111 pitches is not excessive for a 25 year old with a healthy arm. Most good, mature pitchers will throw that many without a second thought.

Anonymous said...

Re: Frank White and going oppo

I thought the same thing. Didn't matter who was up, Frank wanted them to flick it the other way. There are a number of problems with that suggestion, but for starters.... why is Frank White so confident in his hitting advice? He was a great fielder, but a bad hitter.

But even if he were Babe Ruth, he'd still be making a bad argument, one that more than a few ex-players make, which shocks me.... because they played the game! They know that the worst thing a hitter can do is to: 1) Change their successful approach at the plate, and 2) Think too much during the at-bat. Hitters don't have time mid-swing to decide they'd like to take it the other way. They react and the ball is moving so fast their eyes can't track it all the way to the bat.

I really wonder how ex-players seem to forget how quick the game is. It's possible that what Frank is really saying is that Mike Jacobs should PRACTICE going opposite field, practice staying on top of the ball, practice changing his swing, and then when he steps up on gameday he'll instinctively take that approach. I hope that's what he's saying, but even that violates that first rule, which is not to mess with a guy's swing unless he's sucking. Mike Jacobs is not a great hitter, but I'm pretty sure from the way he goes all out on swings that he's not an oppo hitter. Mark Teahen? Maybe, but even he had his best stretch putting balls in the right-center fountains.

I'd go on with more examples of ex-players giving unworkable advice, but I'm not recalling enough specifics. Suffice it to say that for as much as players knock statistical analysts for their interference in the game, I almost never hear sabermetric talk about trying to change a player. We know we don't know the game as well, but we also know that some decisions don't require instincts (the intentional walk), and some certainly do, and we have no problem leaving well enough alone.

Matt Berger said...

1. Pitch count aren't as critically important as modern baseball people think they are
2. That was one tight strike zone, but it beats an erratic zone which we've experienced a few times this year.
3. Apparently the Royals' bats adore lousy weather.
4. Zack Greinke, Oral Hershiser and Sandy Koufax are the only pitchers to not give up an earned run in 6 straight starts.
5. Our reason might depend on Gil's back, if he can't win double digit games we're in trouble.
6. I enjoy regaining first place so much, nevermind how many teams we share it with and how close 4th and 5th place are.
7. I love how this hot Blue Jay offense was shut down by the best pitcher in baseball as well as the...well most intelligent/fortunate pitcher Banny.
8. I will be watching Kyle tomorrow with baited breath if he can get things together and give up 3 or less over 6 or 7 our rotation is still in good shape.
9. Think how bad it could have been if this umpire was calling balls and strikes for Davies...or Banny...a dozen walks over 5 my goodness that could have been nightmarish.
10. 10 is more complete than 9 and 11 wins is better than both.

Sooze said...

Couldn't find a contact button, so I'll leave the link in the comments section. :) Zack Greinke has been amazing this season... was he jinxed on Wednesday?

Dennis said...

Completely off subject, but has anyone heard what's up with Splittorff's health? Just seemed like that whole thing was swept under the rug very quickly and never mentioned again.

big donkeys said...

What causes a person to get stiff? I think Soria was fine until Hillman failed to use him for at least a week. Then he got stiff. Between the World Baseball Classic and lack of usage so far this season, it's no wonder that something's screwy with Soria.

DSW said...

Rany, I was upset that Hillman had Bloomquist bunting in the 3rd inning when the Royals were down 2-1. Crisp led off with a double & Bloomquist followed with what appeared to be a sacrifice bunt to move him to third. Only, Bloomquist made a great bunt and out ran the throw to 1st. Teahan & Guillen followed up by popping up on the 1st pitch they saw. If not for Bloomquist's hustle, the inning would have resulted in no runs. Instead, Butler bailed out Hillman's lame strategy by doubling into the corner, followed up with Jacobs RBI. So, despite Hillman's attempt to keep runs off the board, the Royals put up 3 and took the lead for good. But, why was Bloomquist sacrifice bunting this early in the game against an untested pitcher?

Anonymous said...

You totally move the runner over with your 3, 4, 5 guys coming up when you are down by one run. Throw in the fact that the Royals haven't been hitting and a one run advantage with Greinke on the mound most likely results in a win. It's a no brainer. By the way, you are talking about Bloomquist at the plate and batting second, not DeJesus. Calling for a bunt was the right decision.

Robert said...

"Rany, I was upset that Hillman had Bloomquist bunting in the 3rd inning when the Royals were down 2-1."

I'm pretty anti-sac bunt in virtually all situations (statistic nerd side of me), but bunting with Bloomquist when you've got Greinke on the mound is a situation I don't get too riled up about. Now bunting in the 3rd inning with Crisp at the plate and runners at 1st and 3rd with nobody out like we did in game 2 of this series...I have a MUCH bigger problem with.

Curtis said...

Yeah, I was not upset about the bunt in the third inning either. Bloomquist has had a better bat than I expected so far, but let's remember he has had a total of three extra base hits in 2008 and 2009 combined. So the odds on him trading places with Coco are pretty slim.

And he is a good bunter, and there was no force play, so the downside risk that he is going to fail to get him over is mitigated by the upside risk that he is going to turn the bunt into a hit.

And another wild card is the weather. The game was delayed by rain, and there was drizzle off and on. So it could have been a shorter game.

So there are several factors that all make the decision to bunt better. It was still a conservative move, but not overly troubling.

Nathan said...

I agree with having Bloomquist bunt in that situation, but I don't agree with batting Bloomquist 2nd. Why do so many teams treat the 2nd spot in the batting order as a place to stash a bad hitter? If DeJesus or Teahen were hitting there, you wouldn't have to bunt.

Anonymous said...

Robert that doesn't make you a statiscial nerd

DSW said...

I'm outnumbered, and I appreciate the contrary viewpoints, but I still think it is bad strategy to give up one of your three outs in the 3rd inning, simply to move a runner from 2nd to 3rd base. Some statistical nerd can tell me how much the odds of scoring increase from 2nd base, no outs to 3rd base and 1 out. If the strategy had been successful, the 1 run would only have tied the game. In the 7th inning or later, I would play for the tie at home...not in the 3rd inning.

Anonymous said...

This is the American league. No bunting in the 3rd inning ever.

3 out of 4 games of Bloomquist over DDJ is going to make me WISH we had a barnyard animal managing over Hillman. Willie Gload is going to get 400 at bats this season at this rate.

Unknown Royals Fan said...

Rany - I agree and disagree. At the time that Soria's shoulder tightness first appeared (if, as you said, you take Hillman's words at face value), he had already been sitting for five days (Saturday). We'd already seen at least one situation during those days that could have turned on the Mexicutioner. My question, at Unknown Royals Fan, is - could Soria's injury have been CAUSED by the inactivity that he'd already faced? In other words, did Trey cause the injury by letting Soria sit? From where I sit, it's very possible. Like you, I can give Trey a partial pass - but only partial.

Nathan said...

DeJesus has a slightly stiff back. This isn't an indication that the Royals actually prefer Bloomquist over DeJesus in the 2-hole.

Also, between last season and April, there's at least some reason to think Bloomquist isn't a total offensive cipher. Not that he's going to carry the team offensively, but he may be more useful thank Gload.

Anonymous said...

Batting Bloomquist at #2 and Callaspo at #8 is also stupid in an especially Hillman way.

Robert said...

"Robert that doesn't make you a statiscial nerd"

Perhaps there's a fine line between correlation and causation.

But, it ain't that fine.

Bob Pedersen said...

Is it really fair to blame the injury on the WBC? I understand - sort of - what's said about real game situations differing from spring training outings. Still, though, wouldn't normal side work keep the irregular work from causing problems? I have no real knowledge to go from, but this doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.

Nathan said...

It should be pointed out that making Soria a reliever increased the injury risk. Most top relievers are only successful for a few years, and Soria's arm is as human as it is electric.

Anonymous said...

@ Bob Pederson

i agree. soria only pitched twice in 2 weeks but it's not like he sat on his ass and played bejeweled on his cell the rest of time. he still threw in side sessions. could someone explain how not throwing in 'game conditions' can ruin a pitcher? i don't get it

Antonio. said...

Are they throwing on raised platform? How many mounds are there at the K?