Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Royals Today: 5/19/2009.

Never a dull moment in Royalsville.

This intro was planned in my head ever since the Royals pulled Sunday’s game out, but obviously in light of recent events it may look conciliatory, or even like I’m sucking up. Rest assured that I was only entertained, not intimidated, by the remarks of our Fearless Leader George Brett*. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed that Brett didn’t call me out by name. I’m guessing he just didn’t know how to pronounce it.

*: The best part of Brett’s monologue – and the reason I find it ultimately benign – is that if you ignore the words and just look at the cadence in his voice and his body language, he really doesn’t seem all that upset. When he says “Eff You and Eff Them”, his voice seems as calm and unemotional as if he were giving his opinion on some new restaurant in town, or the new Star Trek movie. Belligerent words, delivered in a non-belligerent manner – I’m going to speculate wildly here and presume that Brett’s BAC was a positive number.

Brett certainly makes some good points, which is that while Trey Hillman has certainly been guilty of some whopping errors of good judgment, it serves no one to call him out for decisions that reasonable men can disagree on. Whether to bunt with men on first and second in a one-run game in Anaheim: reasonable men can disagree about the right answer. Letting Kyle Farnsworth pitch to Jim Thome on Opening Day: if there’s a reasonable man who agrees with Hillman’s decision, I have yet to meet him.

Like I said, I meant to write about this even before Brett’s comments, because as much as I believe that Hillman has cost the Royals a few games with his decisions this season, I believe equally that his moves on Sunday were bold, effective, and ultimately decisive.

I thought Hillman was premature when he closed the curtain on Hochevar’s second start in the fourth inning, but that decision may have saved the game. Hochevar wasn’t terrible to that point, but he wasn’t all that effective either. He had allowed three runs, but with men on first and second and one out, Hillman decided not to give Cool Hand the chance to double that total. He went to Robinson Tejeda, who frankly is overqualified to be a mop-up guy, but in this case the combination of a quick hook and a competent replacement saved the day. Tejeda got out of the jam in the fourth, pitched a scoreless fifth and sixth, and was in line to get the win when the Royals erupted for three runs in the bottom of the inning.

When the Royals’ fourth error of the day, followed by a single, put men on first and third to start the eighth, Hillman pulled Ron Mahay in favor of Juan Cruz, who allowed the tying run to score but prevented further damage, and wound up going two innings for the win. In the bottom of the eighth, after DeJesus doubled and John Buck tripled to give the Royals a one-run lead, Hillman called for the squeeze with Coco Crisp (twice!) with perfect results.

The classic scenario for a squeeze play involves a speedy runner at third base, but in reality the speed of the baserunner only matters on a safety squeeze. With a suicide squeeze, anyone with better than Molinan speed is likely to be safe – what determines whether the gambit works isn’t the speed of the runner, but the contact ability of the batter. Crisp made contact both times, the second time in fair territory, and got the run in.

He would later steal second and score another insurance run, but really, the game was decided there. Nate Silver wrote a fascinating article a few years back on the value of one-run strategies, comparing the value of a single run to the value of a multiple-run inning. What he found is that while the best time to play for a single run is in the late innings of a tie game (obviously), it makes almost as much sense to play for a single run when you lead by just one run. That second run was crucial, because the difference between a two-run lead and a one-run lead in that situation is bigger than the difference between a three-run lead (or even a five-run lead) and a two-run lead. A squeeze in that situation is the right call, assuming you’ve got the personnel to make it work. The Royals did, and it did.

My biggest weakness as a baseball analyst is that I’m a baseball fan; no matter how much I understand the concept of small sample sizes intellectually, I still can’t help but get caught up in the moment. No team is as good as it looks when it’s winning, and no team is as bad as it looks when it’s losing – but when the Royals are going bad, it feels like they’ll never get things turned around. In the middle innings on Sunday, with the Royals down 3-1 and unable to muster anything off of Koji Uehara, they looked for all the world like they were doomed to suffer their eighth loss in nine games. That they didn’t is another exhibit in the case that the New Royals are not the same as the Old Royals. And it’s a feather in Hillman’s cap. If you don’t believe me, just ask George Brett.

- And if you still don’t believe me, just remember the competition. The Rays had their pitcher bat in an American League game – in the #3 spot! – because Joe Maddon screwed up the lineup card by listing two third baseman and no DH. Maddon gets a pass because he took his team to the World Series last year (and because Andy Sonnanstine hit an RBI double in three at-bats) – but can you imagine the outrage if Hillman had done such a thing?

And I’m surprised just how little attention has been paid to Dave Trembley’s whopper on Saturday. Here’s the scenario: Orioles lead 2-0, bottom of the fourth, men on second and third. Mike Jacobs – batting cleanup against a LHP because Hillman doesn’t…Ow! Don’t tase me, Brett! – has just whiffed for the second out. Trembley elects to intentionally walk Jose Guillen.

To pitch to Alberto Callaspo.

Now, I understand that Guillen is the more accomplished hitter, if by “accomplished” you mean “older”. He is hitting .279/.398/.419 for the season, and does have the platoon advantage. But when you intentionally walk a batter to load the bases, you are creating a situation in which a walk scores a run. In other words, by intentionally walking Guillen in this situation, Trembley is betting that Callaspo’s on-base percentage is lower than Guillen’s batting average.

Which makes this a stupid move in almost all circumstances, because it’s rare for there to be such a gap between two consecutive hitters in a lineup so great that the first hitter’s AVG is higher than the second hitter’s OBP.

But in this circumstance, well, it’s almost a fireable offense. Callaspo is hitting .344. His OBP is .396. He’s second in the league in doubles. He’s hitting .438 against LHP, and last year hit .333 against southpaws. You could almost make the case for intentionally walking Callaspo to pitch to Guillen if the roles were reversed. Instead, Trembley decided to load the bases for the line drive machine, who then floated another double down the left field line to tie the game. Nobody will remember this, because the Orioles held on for the win, but I’d argue that for all his mistakes this season, not one decision Hillman has made this year was as bad as this one. I mean, even Jay John Gibbons thinks Trembley’s a fool.

- I know I’m not the only one who was taken aback by Hillman’s vote of no-confidence in Hochevar after the game. “He wasn't going to pull out of it himself, in my opinion,” Hillman said. Yeah, I’m thinking that Hochevar is pretty damn close to pitching himself out of the rotation again. The whispers about Hochevar have long been that he’s lacking a bit in the mental toughness department, and whether that’s true or not, this quote certainly lends credence to the notion that the Royals believe it to be true.

His stuff certainly isn’t a problem – he throws 93 with a great sinker, his curveball and slider are both decent pitches. If anything, his problem on Sunday was that his fastball had too much movement, to the point where he couldn’t control it. Sinkerball pitchers frequently take longer to find themselves than true power pitchers. I’m still hopeful the light bulb will go on for Hochevar, but the Royals have sent notice that they’re not going to wait forever. The Royals under Dayton Moore have ended the redshirt program in Kansas City, which is a good thing. As Hillman pointed out, there’s not much point in sending him back to Omaha, but Hochevar might find himself switching places with Ponson if he doesn’t start pitching with confidence out there.

- Am I the only one who’s starting to get scared by the Tigers? It’s not just that they’re leading the division, or that they lead the division in run differential as well (+31, to the Royals +18). It’s that their starting rotation, which looked like a huge weakness at the start of the year, suddenly looks like an undeniable strength. Armando Galarraga has turned into a pumpkin of late, as I hoped he would, but everyone else has been terrific. Justin Verlander got off to a rough start, even though his velocity was back to 2006-07 levels – and sure enough he’s turned things around with a Greinkesque last four starts, and now leads the league with 69 strikeouts.

Edwin Jackson, who two years ago was one of the worst starters in baseball, has taken The Leap, and in 52 innings has walked just 11 batters with a 2.42 ERA. (And he’s just six weeks older than Greinke.) Twenty-year old rookie wunderkind Rick Porcello* is making the decision to jump him straight from A-ball to the majors look brilliant. And while the Tigers haven’t been able to find a reliable #5 starter, Jeremy Bonderman made his first rehab start a few days ago and looked good.

*: Remember, the Royals could have taken Porcello with the #2 overall pick in 2007; he was the consensus second-best player in the draft. They took Mike Moustakas instead, at least in part because he was cheaper. While Moustakas is playing well, it is well within the realm of possibility that the decision not to take Porcello – and watch as he fell in the draft to an in-division rival – may well decide the division this year.

It’s early. The Tigers still have major bullpen issues. Brandon Inge can’t hit .279/.389/.557 all season. Adam Everett is not a .306 hitter. There’s only so many game-saving catches Curtis Granderson can make. But with the Twins and White Sox getting swept over the weekend, and the Indians continuing to be the most disappointing team in baseball this season, it’s not too early to say that Detroit is the division favorite at this point.

- In case I don’t get to update in the next few days – I have something like 58 patients on my schedule tomorrow – I’m pleased to report that in honor of the Royals’ series against the Cardinals this weekend, our guest on this week’s episode will be Will Leitch, founder of Deadspin.com, author of God Save the Fan, current writer for New York Magazine, and hopeless St. Louis Cardinals fan. So please tune in. It should be fun.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

john gibbons not jay gibbons

Anonymous said...

WOW.

Re: Tonight's game.

Anonymous said...

58 patients, shmifty eight patients. How many of them have hit back-to-back jacks and a game-tying triple off a former 20-strikeout pitcher?

AxDxMx said...

I will never forget being in the stadium tonight. I hope to experience the same intensity and crowd noise again some day in the playoffs. Awesome win!

Casper said...

Does anyone else think Brett was just mad at the media because the camera man was blocking Brett's view of the beer girls?

I appreciate Brett's fire. It's what endeared him to this city as a player. But his passion notwithstanding, I still think Hillman is a poor leader and an even poorer strategist. I think it is beyond debate that he lost control of this team a year ago and it was Moore that chewed their asses out that caused the September resurgence. Why else would Hillman need a fellow Texana to help him on the bench in Gibbons? He needed a buddy to be his wingman and have his back with the team in the clubhouse.

But whatever. It's the midwest, the land of blaming the "liberal media" for covering stuff that people are talking about already. Way to get in line and blend in with the locals, George. (yawns)

Alright, I've helped stir the pot. Let's here the inevitable attempt at a retort, people...

drpaisley said...

There are no hopeless Cardinals fans. Cubs fans, As fans, Nationals fans, sure. I grew up in KC in the '60s, when we didn't have a major league team, just the As, who were a Yankees farm team.

I certainly hope the Royals sweep the Cards, but my fantasy team wants every Cards run to be generated by Albert, and all the Royals runs from Billy "Mini-Sweeney" Butler.

And tonight's game was certainly a fine example of the difference between this year and previous ones. Tater, tater, walk, triple, sac fly. Not gonna happen before.

John-Paul said...

Would it be such a bad thing if Ponson and Hochevar switched places? Quite frankly, I've been satisfied with Sir Sidney all season. Of course, my expectations for him have also taken the fact that he's a #4 into account. Bottom line: he's kept us reasonably in most games, and he's eaten a ton of innings, which makes our bullpen so much fresher for all of our games.

Hochevar's debut coincided with our biggest losing streak of the season, and while it would be unfair to pin that all on him, he could be responsible for more than just one game based on the impact pulling him after two innings has on the bullpen.

He's clearly not in a position to go five innings or more right now. His last start was promising, but I say put him in the pen till he knows how to get major leaguers out. His last MLB win was in July last year. He's got the stuff and he's got the control, he just needs to put it all together before he's starting games.

And GREAT WIN tonight, I was there, maybe the best game I've been to in 6+ years of being a hardcore fan.

kcghost said...

As a baseball analyst Brett was one heckuva hitter.

Number 1 pick in the draft and we get a guy with no stones. Drafting Hochevar was a bad move then and remains a bad move.

The Porcello thing is not that big a deal. It's not like Moustakis is chopped liver (though he may turn out to be) and that high school pitchers have a great success rate. From the lens the Royals were looking through at the time of the draft they cannot be faulted here. Anybody can draft well when they get to do it years later.

Anonymous said...

Ask Leitch if he still wears his Royals hot dog race "Ketchup" t-shirt from 2006.

Chance said...

In New York and Boston, the fans stick around to see their teams pull off the inevitable comeback in late innings. In KC, I'm not sure that we will ever take that sort of win for granted, and come to expect it, but damn, that win sure gave me goosebumps.

As for Hillman, and the "inevitable attempt at a retort" to Caspar's post, let me give it a try (half-heartedly): I don't blame Hillman for losing the team last year. That's a hell of an anchor to have hanging around your neck, meaning Jose Guillen. What could Hillman do, bench his only productive hitter? I bet he wanted to, and I also bet that GMDM didn't have his back on it. As for his strategic lapses, I think more needs to be written about his good moves, like the suicide squeeze and the fact that he didn't screw the game up last night by getting in the way of the most exciting comeback in years. Didn't anyone else expect to see at least one pinch-hitter during the ninth? Not that it would have made sense, or anything.....

Adam said...

I'm just amazed that Olivo took a walk (and took all the way on 3-1). He gambled on that pitch (stating after the game that everyone throws him sliders away on 3-1), but it was a smart gamble that he should make more often.

After watching two straight guys go yard before him, and knowing how hard Olivo likes to swing, I figured he's swing out of his shoes at the first three pitches. Kudos to him for (finally) showing some discipline last night. I just wish he'd make that effort more often.

I didn't become convinced that we had a chance until he walked. That was stranger to me than the back-to-back homers.

Roy in Omaha said...

I don't think Brett was talking to you, directly, at all. Putting yourself in the same league with the morons he DID call out is being pretty harsh on yourself since you've probably forgotten more about baseball than the guys he mentioned ever knew. I'd be frustrated, too, if I still lived in K.C. and had to listen to anything Keven Kietzman has to say about the Royals, or, baseball in general, on a regular basis. What a sad state of affairs it is when we have guys like him shoved in our face, somebody that most casual fans are a lot smarter than.

I'm not a Hillman fan at all. I know what it looks like when it's being done right (see:Whitey Herzog & Dick Howser) and this ain't it. The Royals are succeeding so far in spite of him, not because of him. I don't care what nice things Tony LaRussa supposedly said about him. I can easily name 10 managers in the game I'd rather have at this point. Trey, I'm from the "Show Me State". You're gonna have to "show me" and you haven't even come close as yet. Do you even understand what the words "platoon differential" mean? Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

The IBB to Guillen didn't come until Rich Hill had fallen behind in the count 3-1. So it's not like Trembley called for the intentional walk immediately. With a base open and a 3-1 count on one of our only power threats, I can see why a manager would go ahead and put Guillen on base rather than be forced to groove a pitch to Jose Guillen in a 3-1 count.

Antonio. said...

I'm interested in the guy saying he thinks Hillman is targeted too much yet he was surprised that Hillman didn't screw up the game with a PH