Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dark Cloud, Meet Silver Lining.

I guess I should have paid more attention to Will Carroll. Carroll, you might recall, was the one saying “I don’t feel good about this one” when Hillman finally came clean about Joakim Soria’s shoulder even while downplaying the extent of the injury.

It turns out that the injury was not something that would clear up with a few days of rest, which opens up a whole ton of questions. Like, wouldn’t the Royals have been better off putting him on the DL back on April 19th? That was over three weeks ago, meaning there’s a good chance Soria might have already been re-activated. And, as Sam Mellinger pointed out, if Soria’s injury was more than the he-just-needs-a-few-days-of-rest variety, why on earth did Hillman use him in back-to-back games as soon as he was healthy enough to pitch? (For more with Sam, download yesterday's podcast here.)

In his first game after the injury was revealed, on May 2nd, Soria came in to pitch the 10th, threw six pitches in the inning, and then went back out the following inning with a three-run lead. I don’t fault that decision at all – he was already warmed up and in the game, and he only threw 13 more pitches to close it out. But why, if there was any concern whatsoever about the status of his arm, would Hillman use him the following day (barely 12 hours later, actually) to protect a three-run lead in the ninth? Soria wouldn’t pitch for another four days, even though the Royals played an 11-inning game at home in between, after which Hillman said Soria wasn’t available because of “manager’s decision”. In that game Soria pitched as poorly as he has all season, and afterwards the persistent pain in Soria’s shoulder finally forced the DL stint. In retrospect it would appear that the decision to use Soria in back-to-back games aggravated his symptoms.

And while Hillman deserves some of the blame for that decision, the bulk of blame lies on the training and medical staff for clearing Soria to pitch in the first place. On paper the training staff had a good year in 2008; the starting rotation, in particular, was remarkably healthy outside of the rib-cage injury to Luke Hochevar. But the training staff, led by head trainer Nick Swartz, has never had a particularly strong reputation around baseball. I make that statement not as a medical judgment of my own – I’m much too far from the situation to render that kind of judgment – but simply as a reflection of what I’ve heard from people around the game.

Injuries to Royals players have an annoying tendency to linger, or to recur after we’ve been told they were healed. This isn’t a new problem, either; this goes back to 2000, when Jose Rosado complained of shoulder pain after four starts, the Royals declined to order an MRI – hey, those puppies are expensive! – and instead skipped his turn in the rotation once. Rosado took the mound again on April 30th, and gutted his way into the sixth inning and even got the victory. Afterwards the pain in his arm was even worse, so the team finally caved and ordered the MRI – which revealed that Rosado’s rotator cuff had been reduced to hamburger meat. Rosado would never pitch in the majors again, the career of a two-time All-Star over at age 25.

I certainly hope that a similar fate does not await the Mexicutioner. His MRI, the Royals repeatedly reassure us, is completely normal. But even ignoring the possibility that this is a lie – the Royals have already lied once about the condition of Soria’s health – sometimes the worst news you can get about a pitcher complaining of arm pain is that “nothing is wrong”. Something is clearly wrong, or his arm wouldn’t hurt. The problem is that the Royals don’t know what’s wrong – and if you don’t know what’s wrong, you can’t make it right. Maybe it’s true that all he needs is a little rest, and he’ll be back in a few weeks, good as new. If that’s the case, the Royals will be fine. Juan Cruz is perfectly capable of functioning as the closer in the short term.

But it’s also possible that after a few weeks of rest, Soria’s still feeling arm pain – in which case, what do you do? When the medical tests and the symptoms disagree, trust the symptoms. Show me a pitcher that’s been accused of malingering, of refusing to pitch through the normal soreness that every pitcher feels, and I’ll show you a pitcher whose got an arm injury that’s gone undiagnosed. Mark Prior was accused of being a faker by the Cubs right up until the moment the doctors did exploratory surgery on his rotator cuff and found that the MRI had somehow missed the fact that somewhat had set off a bomb inside his shoulder.

Soria is so indispensable to the Royals largely because he’s not fazed by anything. No one thought he would become a closer when he was acquired in the Rule 5 draft, and even today no one would accuse him of having closer stuff. What he has is a closer’s mentality. He’s fearless on the mound, and he never, ever loses his composure. He’s about the last guy on the team you’d suspect of exaggerating pain symptoms. If he says his arm’s hurting, I don’t care how many imaging studies come back negative – there’s something wrong with his arm. And this time, the Royals better not let him anywhere near a pitching mound until they are totally, completely, utterly certain that his arm is 100%.

That may be a long way off. As Will wrote yesterday, “I'm worried that there's something more going on here.” You and me both, brother.

The silver lining here is that tonight’s starting pitcher is Luke Hochevar, who has probably been the most effective pitcher in Triple-A this season. I didn’t see this coming. Even though I’m not surprised to see Soria get put on the DL, I didn’t expect the Royals to use this injury as an opportunity to revamp their rotation. I would have expected someone like Carlos Rosa, who has taken to the bullpen nicely (17 Ks, 4 BBs in 17.2 innings in Omaha), to get an opportunity instead. Or I would have thought that Hochevar would have been called up to use in long relief while waiting for a rotation spot to open up.

Just last Thursday on the radio show, I asked Assistant GM Dean Taylor about what the Royals planned to do with Hochevar given how well he was pitching, and nothing in his response suggested that Cool Hand was about to replace Sidney Ponson in the rotation. Which was not surprising, given that Ponson was coming off his best performance (one run in 7.1 innings) the day before.

So give the Royals credit here: they didn’t have to make this move. They could have left Hochevar in Omaha, or brought him up to use in long relief, but instead they made the move that gives the team the rotation that they had last summer – and that I recommended last winter that they stick with. It took us longer than I would have liked to get here, but now the Royals have their five best starting pitchers in their rotation. Plus, we can at least entertain the possibility that Ponson, who has made just 15 relief appearances in his career, will see his stuff improve in short stints and be far more effective as a reliever than he was as a starter. Hey, it’s worked for Jamey Wright and Robinson Tejeda.

And in the long run, it’s possible that Hochevar’s brief return to Triple-A will be the best thing for him. For the first time in his pro career, he was able to completely dominate hitters at a level before he was promoted. He made six starts, each arguably better than the one before – topped off with an eight inning, five hit, no walk, nine strikeout performance in which he got 14 groundouts and just one flyout.

Hochevar has succeeded by focusing on what he does well: throw strikes and get groundballs. In 40 innings, he’s walked just 10 batters, and has a phenomenal groundball/flyball ratio of 3.68 – which has led to just two home runs. His 0.90 ERA is not going to last, driven as it is by allowing just 28 hits – his BABIP is about .250, which is unsustainable. But he’s whiffed a solid 30 batters in 40 innings, a ratio which is actually better than it looks precisely because he has surrendered so few baserunners per inning.

The biggest reason for concern with Hochevar is that he hasn’t done much to conquer his platoon splits. Last year RHB hit just .244/.319/.348, but LHB hit .314/.371/.475, and that weakness has persisted this season. In Omaha this year, RHB hit just .168 against Hochevar, but LHB have hit .286 with five walks in 42 at-bats. It’s not a fatal weakness, in part because major league teams are so insistent on carrying seven or eight relievers that they can’t stack their lineup with eight left-handed bats all that easily. But it’s something he’ll need to continue to work on as the season goes on.

For the remainder of the season, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Hochevar to put up an ERA in the mid-4s, maybe a little lower if something really did click for him in Triple-A. If he’s the Royals’ fifth-best starter – and depending on how you feel about Brian Bannister, even if Hochevar is their fourth-best starter – then this is one hell of a rotation. There isn’t a single guy in the rotation that projects to be significantly below-average, which is the first time I can say that since, I don’t know, 1991? The 1994 Royals had David Cone, Kevin Appier, Tom Gordon, and Mark Gubicza all pitching well, but no reliable fifth starter. The 1991 Royals had Appier, Mike Boddicker, and Bret Saberhagen – and while Gubicza was terrible that year, Gordon and Luis Aquino both pitched well when they were used as starters. In any case, it’s been a long, long time.

Get well soon, Jack. With a rotation that should consistently keep the Royals in ballgames – and with an offense that doesn’t figure to blow opponents out all that often – I expect that we're going to have a lot of close leads to protect all season long.

37 comments:

donald said...

As usual, nice work Rany. I'm pumped about this 5-man rotation. It has the potential to be one of the best in MLB today and maybe for a long time. Silver lining.

ChaimMKeller said...

Rany, do you really think Ponson is staying in the bullpen? Soria's not our only pitcher with worrisome aches and pains. If Gil Meche's sore back can't be worked out soon, I suspect we'll see him hit the DL, Ponson return to the rotation, and Rosa called up to round out the bullpen.

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Ryan said...

I grew up as a pitcher and had my share of shoulder problems. When do you ever hear of a pitcher having a sore shoulder and it being okay in two weeks and him not having problems for the rest of the season? It just doesn't work that way usually.

They should have shut him down him early, and given him a month of rest and rehab at least. They should have kept a close eye on him because of the WBC, and taken precautions because of it.

Nathan said...

Now imagine the Royals had put Soria where we all know arms are safest: in the rotation. Greinke, Soria, Meche, Davies/Hochevar/Bannister is also one hell of a rotation. Installing pitchers with three or four excellent offerings as closers accomplishes the following:

1) increase the injury risk to a premium arm.
2) reduce a premium arm to 70-odd innings, many of them low-leverage.
3) induce the team to keep them in this situation, since they've acquired the hallowed "closer" label.

I'm not saying Soria is necessarily hurt because the Royals chose to use him as a closer, or that he'd necessarily be a great starter. I'm just saying that each of those things is likely enough that the team should at least explore the possibility of moving him to the rotation. They should also reexamine their faith in the Institution of Closerhood, because teams on the edge of competitiveness like the Royals can't afford to sacrifice wins to tradition.

Dave Farquhar said...

Rany, for his sake, I hope the Royals are listening to you. I know this is outside your specialty, but you still had to take the classes.

The Royals can't afford to Jose Rosado their closer, so I hope they get third and fourth and twelfth opinions until they do figure out what's wrong with him. I don't suppose you know someone...?

As for Gil Meche... Wouldn't it make sense for a team to keep a chiropractor or an osteopath on staff to deal with neck and back issues through manipulation? Or do they already? Tightness in the back is exactly what they're trained to treat.

Casper said...

Soria is to me what Greinke is to you, Rany, so believe me when I say I know what you're talking about. But I want to talk about the team itself for a moment - I touched briefly on how I thought this was a must-win game tonight in response to your last posting, but I'm really growing more and more concerned about this team as a whole. We've went on little winning streaks like our recent 6-gamer, but what always kills us every year are those 6,8, - hell, make it 12 - game losing streaks. Coming off the sweep in Anaheim, I'm concerned about what kind of a team we really have here. I know it's early in the year, but as we've discussed before, every game counts, and as I write this I fear we're headed for another loooong streak that will sink our season before we can really take off because already we've seen "Revenge of the Pop-up" in centerfield with Coco, Aviles and DeJesus, and then just now, we just saw Ponson lose the throw as he covers 1B off his glove. Losing is one thing - losing the way we do for as long as we do is quite another. And if we keep having fly-balls go right over Guillen in right, Olivo running to 3rd with a runner standing on it, Wright throwing into CF on a pick off, the pop up and the Ponson error tonight (these are all within the last 4 games!) then I think we may all need to buckle in. Greinke is great to follow, but there are 24 other people on the team. I'm concerned.

Anonymous said...

Game off.

Re: DDJ, whom I've defended for years, and who has become an amazing out sink...game off.

Re: Mike Jacobs, who oddly doesn't seem to be able to bring that lineup-inspiring energy quite as consistently as it would seem (though he can consistently produce 30 soft outs between 450-foot homers)...game off.

Re: Wasting Greinke's last performance...game off.

Re: Not bouncing back from wasting Greinke's performance...game off.

Re: Hochevar giving up 8 runs in two innings in his first start...game off.

Re: Having it all occur while Soria goes to the DL...game off.

Sounds a whole lot like the Royals of yesteryear to me. And I'm usually cautiously hopeful.

Unknown Royals Fan said...

Worst start of the year by far. Luke's silver has turned into lead. Luke should keep his Omaha apartment.

Carl Willingham said...

Luke needs to put his flatbilled hat in a cup for about a week and look like everyone else in baseball. Looking and pitching like a fool, aargh. As I have said since last winter, this team needs a manager who puts the best lineup on the field and not one who caves into the whims of his veteran players like Guillen and Jacobs. Those two should be the platoon DH's. Neither can field, and Jacobs can't hit lefties despite his self absorbed pronouncements. The team just looks really sloppy right now, hope that changes soon.

Anonymous said...

Silver lining turned back into dark cloud

Anonymous said...

Mike Jacobs = Danny Tartabull....home runs that don't matter, piss poor in the clutch

Anonymous said...

Nice work, Rany. But there is a typo in your post. You state that Hochevar can reasonably be expected to have an ERA in the mid-4's. I think you meant mid-40's.

rbh325 said...

So how about the TV crew tonight. Game was so bad they focused on random drunk girls in the stands for.... 5 minutes? Someone with the capability should put that on youtube

kcghost said...

The Soria thing looks ugly. Let's hope for the best, but as you said the Royals medical staff does not enjoy a great reputation for their work.

Hochevar looked like the classic over matched 4A pitcher last night. Breaking balls up in the zone can get AAA guys out but even lame major league hitters just feast on them.

Anonymous said...

Thank God we took Hocehvar over Lincecum, since Lincecum is "small" and "an injury risk".

Call it the Royals version of Bowie over Jordan. I remember being so unhappy the day we took Hochevar, and the last three years have done nothing to change my mind.

Nathan said...

You mean Hochevar over Adam Miller, right? That was the consensus pick. You're not going to get the best player very often, even with the number 1 pick, especially in one of those years when there's no Alex Rodriguez or Justin Upton clearly separating himself from the pack.

Nathan said...

4-game losing streaks happen.

Reading too much into the last four games is as bad as reading too much into the previous five. We all knew to begin the year that this team is fundamentally not too far from .500. The question is, do we have an 85 win team that could catch some breaks and win 90, or a 75 win team that could catch some breaks and win 80? As Rany explained then, that difference has a huge effect on playoff odds. I think it's still way too soon to distinguish these options, but early returns are positive. Zack is an elite starter. Crisp is walking all over the league. Jacobs is reaching base a third of the time. Callaspo can hit. The Royals have out walked, out homered and outscored their opponents so far, without relying on too many obviously flukish performances.

I understand the frustration of losing, but the comparisons of this team to the ones from a few years ago that would reel off long streaks of back-to-back double-digit losing streaks aren't going to bear out. I don't just hope these doomsday scenarios won't happen, I believe they won't happen for compelling reasons. That's what makes this season so much more fun!

Anonymous said...

The bandwagon is thinning out. I've believed in this team for far too long, and now they actually look like they could be the real thing, and then they go and show you who they really are. The real Royals are back. They'll be in last place by the end of May. Well, maybe not. Cleveland is pretty horrible too.

Anonymous said...

Nathan--you mean Andrew Miller, and he was far from a consensus, as he only had two pitches in college.

It came down to "scout guys" being divided between Miller and Hochevar with "Moneyball numbers geeks" being sold on Lincecum. As is generally the case, you can see who was right.

Shelby said...

We have a .490 team and we will not win the division.

Matt Berger said...

Let's hope this game was at least a bit of an abberation. Maybe we really are the Royals of old, but don't tell me the A's are the worst offense in baseball because they aren't they started slow but there offense is going to be pretty good all year. Come on Banny, time to play stopper.

Shelby said...

We will finish 3rd.

Dave said...

Banny stops the slide today. Write it down.

tom said...

Silver Lining, meet Jack Cust.

John Grout said...

Hochevar looked like a quadruple-A pitcher on Tuesday night... even the A's rustier hitters can hit hangers and fastballs that catch too much of the plate. Hope Luke can fix his location problems or he will not be long for the major leagues... again.

Carl Willingham said...

Anonymous, your spot on about Andrew Miller. Lincecum was the best arm and Longoria was the best hitter in the draft but we already had a 3b and you just can't move those guys to other positions (yikes). The Royals chose Hochevar on the basis of about 30 innings of indy ball work with a fresh arm and no pressure. It's like judging a golfer by watching him play a casual round with his friends instead of in a pressure packed tourney. That pick will haunt the Royals for a long time. That Moore still has to act like he had nothing to do with the pick is a joke. Moore has done some nice things, but that draft choice was a joke then and is a joke now. Hochevar has nothing nasty to put big league hitters away. He will have his moments when they hit atom balls to his fielders, but he's not a horse. Go Royals.

Anonymous said...

I just heard a "thunk", looked in the rear-view mirror and saw a run-away wheel bouncing down the road.

Anonymous said...

BREAKING NEWS - we've lost 5 straight and are STILL tied for first...enough with the 'Same old Royals' and 'the sky is falling' crap. Enjoy that you have a team this year that you can get excited about (or even nervous).

Anonymous said...

Well, excuse us for being jaded. We certainly have NO REASON TO BE! It's not like we've ever seen this before. We're die hard Royals fans, we've suffered through years and years of dog-crap baseball. So when we see game after game of bad fielding and game after game of little league level base running, mixed with no hitting, an All-Star closer going on the DL and a first overall draft pick coming up and getting beaten like a red-headed step child, EXCUSE US FOR THINKING "HMMM, THIS LOOKS VERY FAMILIAR"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Curtis said...

All alone in first place! Woo-hoo!!

Here's hoping we don't turn it into a three way tie in a couple of hours.

Come on, ladies, give them a home field advantage tonight!!!

Nathan said...

Right, because good teams never put their closers on the DL, or watch their prospects struggle against major league competition, or lose five straight games. What we've seen in the last two weeks is the normal ebb and flow a competitive, but not dominant, team should expect over the course of a long season. This reflexive bashing of our team as soon as they hit a rough patch is a little neurotic. What do the Royals of five or ten years ago have to do with this year's Royals? The management team is different, and the roster has been almost completely turned over. So yes, I'll excuse you for thinking this looks very familiar, but that doesn't make it a rational thing to think.

Anonymous said...

It's rational.

Curtis said...

Damn it, Rany! Talk us in off the ledge!!

Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Nathan said...

"It's rational."

Why would a team with a new GM, a new manager, and an almost totally revamped roster from the years you're talking about, be expected to break down the same way they did? Do you think the uniforms are cursed?

Also, I'd be interested to see any evidence that the Royals have been streakier than would be statistically expected over the last few years. Everyone seems to think that it's the losing streaks that have killed them. Thing is, it's the losing streaks that kill every bad team, but it's being a bad team to start with that causes long losing streaks. So the problem isn't usually some bizarre streakiness, but just a lack of talent. This six game losing streak doesn't worry me too much, because our roster is talented enough that it can be expected to end soon. If we were really a .340 team at heart, like in 2005, it would be much more likely to continue.

Curtis said...

Dude, where were you last year? On May 18, Greinke beat Florida to put us at 21-22. We were a game and a half out of first place after what looked to be a tough part of the schedule, and things were looking fairly positive.

And then we lost 12 in a row, and we were 9 games out, and we never sniffed even third place again.

This isn't a pattern just of the Baird years. A huge losing streak decimated us last year. We finished 13 games out last year. If we had played .500 ball during that stretch, we would have basically played .500 ball for the season, and that would have cut into the lead significantly. It would have completely changed the complexion of the season.

Nathan said...

Curtis,

Take any team, choose the worst stretch of their year, and suppose they went .500 in that stretch. It would always "change the whole complexion of the season." Any team would be radically improved by eliminating their losing streaks! That's nothing unique to the Royals. Losing streaks aren't proof of bad team chemistry, they're an inevitable result of 162-game sequences in which even the best teams only with 60% of the time.

For any losing team, there will be some losing streak during the season that you could point to and say "that's what buried them." But if you rearranged all the wins and losses from the year to eliminate the streak, you wouldn't have a better team, just a statistically anomalous one. Would you be more happy with an 18-17 record if the Royals had lost one more game earlier in the season, but won one in the middle of this streak, so that they only had a 3-game losing streak? If so, why? What does it matter what order the wins and losses come in?

The Royals have a talented team this year, and at least some hope of intelligent management, so a six game losing streak is no cause for dispair.