And now I know why God, in His infinite wisdom, did not want me to attend Opening Day.I am, as many of you know, a rather patient baseball fan. I am a rather forgiving baseball fan. I would not have survived as a Royals fan if I was not.
Last year, no one was the beneficiary of my patience and my forgiving nature than Trey Hillman. Whether it was his ridiculous dressing-down of his players on the field at the end of a meaningless spring-training game, or the way he talked up the importance of OBP all spring even as his players set an all-time franchise low in walks, I defended him well past the point of reason. I figured that anyone who had just taken the Nippon Ham Fighters, the Royals of Japanese baseball, to two Japan Series and one championship must have some idea what he is doing, and after years of watching managers who had no idea what they’re doing, I was prepared to give some leeway to a manager with an actual history of success on his resume.
The free pass is over.
The shame is that there are so many positives to take from this game. Gil Meche was brilliant once again, getting through seven innings in just 91 pitches, striking out six without a walk, and getting out of a bases-loaded, none-out jam in the second with just one run scoring. After Mike Jacobs turned a routine groundball into a double (excuse me…a “double”) in the fourth, Meche retired Carlos Quentin and Jim Thome to get out of the inning. David DeJesus showed off the improved outfield defense with his arm instead of his glove, killing two baserunners and taking at least one run off the board. Kevin Seitzer was in line for a game ball after both Jose Guillen and Mike Aviles walked (did those two ever walk in the same game last year?), both of them working their way back from a two-strike count against Mark Buehrle. Gordon homered. Teahen doubled and walked and didn’t kill anyone while playing second base.
If the Royals hadn’t held a lead going into the late innings, the story of the game might have been the team’s inability to hit with runners on base. The Royals stranded 11 men on base, and were 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. But how a team hits in those situations over the span of one game is meaningless; what matters is that the Royals were getting guys into scoring position in the first place. And thanks to Meche, the Royals were in excellent position to win the game despite their futility with RISP.
Until the eighth. Until the inning that Hillman had just yesterday designated as Kyle Farnsworth’s inning, a decision that I suppose was inevitable in spite of, or perhaps precisely because of, the fact that it completely defies common sense.
Look for veteran Kyle Farnsworth to get the ball today in the eighth inning — instead of Juan Cruz or Ron Mahay — if the Royals are looking to bridge a lead to closer Joakim Soria.
“With the effectiveness that he’s shown (in spring training),” manager Trey Hillman said, “it would probably be Kyle. But those three guys can rotate between the seventh and eighth on any given day.
“One of those guys, probably Cruz or Mahay, could default to the sixth if we needed that.”
There wasn’t a Royals fan in the country who didn’t hold their breath when they read that passage on the eve of Opening Day.
Trey Hillman named Kyle Farnsworth his primary set-up man instead of Juan Cruz.
Kyle Farnsworth, he of the 4.48 ERA last year, and the 4.80 ERA the year before that, and the 4.36 ERA the year before that, over Juan Cruz, who had a 2.61 ERA last year, a 3.10 ERA the year before that, a 4.18 ERA the year before that.
Farnsworth, who surrendered 15 home runs in 60 innings last year (pitching for the Yankees and Tigers, two teams that play in pitcher’s parks) over Cruz, who surrendered 5 home runs in 52 innings last year (pitching for the Diamondbacks, who play in one of the game’s best hitter’s parks.)
There is no fathomable reason to think that Kyle Farnsworth is a better pitcher than Juan Cruz. None. And any reason that Hillman might proffer serves only to denigrate the intellect of the man proffering it. Before today’s game, I had been told that Hillman decided on Farnsworth in part because he pitched better during the final week of spring training. That excuse – and I hesitate to sully the fine name of the term “excuse” by associating it with Hillman’s thought process here – is both inexplicable and totally absurd. Which is to say, it makes as much sense as any other excuse that Hillman could have offered for his decision.
And it actually makes more sense than the other possible reason Hillman might have had: that Hillman arranged his bullpen hierarchy not based on performance, but based on salary. It’s a fact that Farnsworth was signed for more money than Cruz. It’s also completely meaningless, unless you’re using that information to evaluate Dayton Moore’s skills as a GM. If Hillman decided that he needed to justify the fact that one reliever is making $4.5 million a year and the other one is making $3 million a year – or if
Juan Cruz has been the better reliever for at least three years. Dayton Moore signed him, at the cost of a draft pick, precisely because he was an upgrade on what the Royals had in terms of a bridge to Joakim Soria. How Hillman could have settled on Farnsworth to be his eighth-inning guy and decided that Cruz “could default to the sixth if we needed that” defies explanation.
Does Hillman even know that Farnsworth, whatever his assets are, is incredibly vulnerable to the home run? Does he know that U.S. Cellular Field is one of the best home run parks in baseball? Does he know anything?
It’s bad enough that Hillman brought Farnsworth in to protect a one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth inning. Worse still, he left him in. He left him in after Josh Fields led off with a bunt single. He left him in after Chris Getz singled with one out to put the tying run on third.
He probably felt pretty good about leaving Farnsworth in when Carlos Quentin struck out and kept Fields ninety feet away. That’s why the Royals spent $9 million on a pitcher that few other teams wanted at half that price: they wanted the guy who could get a strikeout when a strikeout was needed. Never mind that Farnsworth badly needed a strikeout because of a mess of his own making, or that Cruz has a better strikeout rate than Farnsworth.
So that brought Jim Thome to the plate. Jim Thome, who had hit 42 home runs against the Royals in his career, more than any other player in history (Rafael Palmeiro had hit 41.) Two men on, two out, one of the most feared left-handed hitters in the league at the plate.
Does Hillman bring in Juan Cruz at this point, because he’s, you know, a better pitcher? No, but fine, that ship has sailed.
Does he bring in Ron Mahay to get a key left-handed hitter out? In his career, Thome has hit .296/.431/.620 against RHP – against southpaws, those numbers drop to .240/.342/.442. He’s basically Barry Bonds against right-handers, and Casey Blake against left-handers. Mahay only needs to get one out before it’s Mexicutioner time. How about it? No.
Well, how about Soria himself? Didn’t we just hear Hillman talk about how he was going to use Soria to get four or five outs a lot more this year? What better time to use Soria in the eighth than on Opening Day, when he hasn’t thrown a pitch since Saturday? Keep in mind that Soria, much like his doppelganger Mariano Rivera, has a reverse platoon split – he’s been more effective against left-handed hitters (.167/.242/.255) than right-handed hitters (.188/.251/.264) in his career. If ever there was a time to call upon Soria in the eighth inning, it’s this situation, right? No.
No. We’d much rather break out the deer rifle to measure just how far Jim Thome can hit a fastball that’s thrown incredibly hard and incredibly straight.
Farnsworth threw the pitch, but he’s no higher than third on the list of people who should be blamed for this. It’s not his fault that Dayton Moore offered him $9 million to sign. It’s not his fault that Hillman brought him in to pitch the eighth inning when better options abounded, then left him out there even as his margin for error grew smaller and smaller.
The Rany of a year ago would have cut Hillman some slack for this. “He made a mistake,” he would have said, “but he’ll learn from this. Let’s see who he calls upon the next time the Royals have a one-run lead in the eighth. If Cruz gets the call, then chalk this up as an expensive but useful lesson for Hillman, that the guy with the ERA in the 2s is generally better than the guy with the ERA in the 4s.”
That Rany is gone. He’s fed up. He’s watched Trey Hillman make enough dumb decisions with his bullpen (like this one). He watched as Trey Hillman lost the clubhouse, the cardinal sin for any manager, last August before he was rescued by the team’s improbable 18-8 run in September. And he’s decided that whatever Hillman accomplished in
The worst part of all this is that we all saw it coming. Every last one of us knew from the moment they read Hillman’s words about keeping Farnsworth in the eighth-inning role that it would cost the Royals dearly at some point. We didn’t know it would be Opening Day, against one of our chief rivals, with the justice meted out by one of our greatest nemeses. But we knew it was coming. With the Royals, no bad decision ever goes unpunished.
Here’s a memo for you, Trey: Kyle Farnsworth is NOT NOT NOT a quality set-up man. Juan Cruz is.
Oh, and here’s another one: never underestimate the power of common sense.
If the reasons why Juan Cruz is better than Kyle Farnsworth can be understood by a six-year-old, then no amount of extenuating circumstances, like who looked better in a meaningless ballgame in March, ought to change that fact.
Maybe Hillman will learn from this immediately and anoint Cruz as his top set-up man, or maybe he’ll need to cough up a few more games first. What happened on Opening Day was the ultimate example of what behavioral psychologists call “negative feedback”, and you’d think that would be enough to learn. (Even lab rats know that if you shock them every time they press a lever, they should stop pressing the lever.) But Hillman shouldn’t have needed the negative feedback of a game-winning three-run homer to learn. If he’s not smart to figure out on his own that Juan Cruz is a better reliever than Kyle Farnsworth, he’s probably not smart enough to realize that if Decision A leads to Outcome B, the best way to avoid Outcome B again is to stop making Decision A.
Regardless of whether he learns or not, Hillman is getting no slack with me this year. He cost us this game, plain and simple. He cost us a two-game swing in the standings with a divisional rival. The odds that the outcome of this game – the outcome of Hillman’s decision – keeps the Royals out of the postseason are something like 1%. Think about that: it’s still Opening Day, and there’s a one-in-a-hundred shot that the Royals just blew the division.
What else is there to say? I’m tired of getting sarcastic emails on the Baseball Prospectus email list with subject lines that go “Trey Hillman, Supergenius” – emails from people who are not Royals fans, but are just so offended by dumb managerial decisions that they felt compelled to discuss what Hillman did with other non-Royals fans. I’m tired of getting trash-talking text messages from friends who root for the White Sox. I’m tired of losing games that should have been won, wasting performances that should have been celebrated, and starting the season with that pit in my stomach that says, “here we go again,” and it’s still Opening Day.
Most of all, I’m tired of watching the Royals shoot themselves in the foot. God knows we have enough of an uphill climb if we want to contend. We can’t control the size of our payroll or the size of our market, but dammit, we can control the quality of our decisions. We can’t outspend our opponents, but is it too much to ask that we outsmart them? Or at least that we don’t outdumb them?
Instead, Trey Hillman made arguably the worst decision made by any of the 30 major league managers in their first game, and it cost his team the game. Worse, that decision was pre-meditated.
Thank God there’s another game tomorrow, and a fresh chance for the Royals to prove that this year really is different. It’s also another chance for Trey Hillman to prove whether he really has the chops to be a manager in the major leagues. I’ll be watching, with jaded eyes.