Sunday, May 3, 2009

Royals Today: 5/3/2009.

After last night’s epic win, I tweeted, “Looking for another reason to take KC seriously? There's no way we win tonight's game last year...or the year before...or the year before...” Then I read the game recap, where I learned that Zack Greinke was thinking along the exact same lines: “We never win these kinds of games here,” he said. “Along about the seventh or eighth inning, I was thinking, ‘If we win this, things have changed.’ ”

We won. Maybe things have changed.

If you’re not a Royals fan, you may have difficulty understanding just how frightening it is when we play the Twins. The Indians may have dominated us more over the last 15 years, the White Sox may be the target of more personal hatred…but in the late innings of a tight ballgame, no team fills me with more dread than the Twins – and no venue frightens me more than the Metrodome. I’m willing to wager that in the span of time when the Royals were saddled with the worst bullpen of all time (1998-2006, roughly), no team stole more games from the Royals in the late innings than Minnesota.

This series looked like another data point for the theory that the Twins just have our number. Joe Mauer finally returned to the majors on May 1st, just in time to play the Royals – and homers in his first at-bat, then doubles in his second at-bat, then grabs four more hits yesterday. Last night they responded to Royal runs in the second, fifth, and sixth with rallies of their own. After the Royals rallied to tie in the seventh and take the lead in the eighth, Juan Cruz started the bottom of the inning with a pitch that was about 15 feet outside, a fitting introduction to a 24-pitch outing which included two walks, a single, a wild pitch, a passed ball, and just ten strikes. I was tempted to shut off the TV after Delmon Young’s single tied the game; the odds that the Royals would pull this game out were too slim to justify watching it.

But they did. They did because David DeJesus made two great hustle plays in left field in the eighth inning. They did because Ron Mahay came in and finally looked like the pitcher he was during the first half of last season, retiring Kubel-Mauer-Morneau in order in the eighth and ninth, and working into the tenth. They did because Coco Crisp masterfully worked Joe Nathan for a 12-pitch at-bat to lead off the ninth, and even though he eventually grounded out, he set the tone for a grueling 25-pitch inning which insured that Nathan wouldn’t come out for the tenth. From Dick Kaegel’s writeup: “Bench coach John Gibbons turned to Hillman after Crisp’s at-bat and said: “All we have to do is keep seeing some pitches, and hopefully we’ll only see Mr. Nathan for one inning.’”

The Royals won because after Mahay gave up a double to Brian Buscher leading off the tenth – which just missed clearing the fence – it was the Twins who, for a change, had problems with the fundamentals. Carlos Gomez, one of the fastest players in baseball, fouled off two bunt attempts before harmlessly flying out to center. And the Royals won because Trey Hillman decided to see what all this talk about using Joakim Soria for more than one inning was about, and brought him in to pitch in the 10th inning of a tie game. They won because after a wild pitch moved Bruscher to third, Tony Pena (who had apparently already broken the hamate bone in his left hand) made a nice play on a grounder to hold the runner at third, and then Billy Butler made a nice player on a grounder down the line.

But mostly, they won because after a half-decade of talking about the importance of on-base percentage, the Royals have finally figured out how to use the walk as an offensive weapon. Crisp didn’t swing at any of the six pitches he saw in the top of the 11th, the first three and the last of which were balls. Willie Bloomquist showed bunt, but pulled the bat back twice on pitches out of the strike zone, and realizing that there was no point bunting on a pitcher who couldn’t throw strikes, worked his own five-pitch walk. Butler grounded out, but Mark Teahen pinch-hit and walked on four pitches. R.A. Dickey relieved Craig Breslow and got John Buck down in the count, 1-2, but Buck worked the count full, fouled off two pitches, then took ball four to drive home the go-ahead run. Callaspo then hit a slow grounder to plate another. Against the best control pitching staff in baseball, the Royals had scored two runs, in the 11th inning of a tie game, without benefit of a hit.

Maybe things have changed. Much like this game went a long way towards eliminating doubt that the 2003 Royals were in it for the long haul, the fact that the Royals had the last word in a game that had ten lead changes tells me that they’re not going away anytime soon.

- Thanks to scoring 34 runs in their last four games, the Royals now rank a respectable 10th in the league in runs per game. A few days ago, there was a big disconnect between the Royals offensive stats and their run totals, due primarily to a poor performance with runners in scoring position. The team’s performance with RISP has evened out, as it tends to do, with some nice work the last few days.

The Royals have scored 112 runs and allowed 96; according to BP’s Equivalent Runs, they “should” have scored 114 runs and allowed 97. The difference is immaterial. The team is playing well because they should be playing well.

- You want to know the biggest single reason why the Royals are playing better than last year? The Royals have drawn 86 walks in 24 games; they rank 7th in the league in that category. The last time the Royals ranked in the top half of the AL in walks? 1989. Before that? 1980. I’m not saying the Royals should be putting Kevin Seitzer in their Hall of Fame yet. But it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start working on the portrait.

- The man leading the Royals’ foray into the land of plate discipline is Coco Crisp, who has 17 walks already. I’m as shocked as anyone. Crisp’s career high in walks is 50 – he’s on pace to get there before the All-Star Break. On the one hand, when a 29-year-old player is on a pace to basically double his career high in a category, you have to suspect it’s a small sample size fluke. On the other hand, walk rates are one of the most stable statistics in baseball. Guys hit .400 in April and .200 in May all the time; drawing 17 walks in a month and four walks the next is a much rarer event.

Crisp certainly has the look at the plate of someone who is looking to work the count at every opportunity. If you knew nothing about his track record, you’d think he absolutely could draw 100 walks in a season. But it’s hard to just ignore the track record. I mean, Crisp played for the RED SOX the last three years, a team for who plate discipline is akin to a religion, and never walked in even 10% of his plate appearances. Could Seitzer have really found a way to get Crisp to double his walk rate?

- If Crisp does draw 100 walks this year, he’ll be the first Royal to do so since, again, 1989. Who did it that year? Kevin Seitzer.

- Alberto Callaspo. My God. Batting average is subject to a lot of variation, but still – he’s hitting .382, he’s second in the league with 11 doubles, and he’s struck out just four times all year. He’s not going to hit anywhere near this well all season – one of the best hidden indicators of batting average is line drive percentage, and Callaspo’s mark of 18% this season is right around league average – but he’s a legitimate .300-plus hitter. He’s also spent all but two games this year batting 6th or lower in the lineup. Is there any legitimate reason why Callaspo shouldn’t be batting third?

- Willie Bloomquist. Um, yeah, I didn’t see this coming either. Before the season, the one reason to be a little intrigued about Bloomquist was that last season, his walk rate spiked, as he drew 25 walks in under 200 plate appearances and posted a very solid .377 OBP. My feeling was that the Royals would beat that out of him in quick order, but instead he’s maintained that discipline, already drawing eight walks. Throw in his defensive versatility and clubhouse presence, and that justifies a roster spot. Then add in a fluky batting average and some accidental power, and suddenly you have a guy who’s winning games for the Royals.

I mean, this next phrase is inarguable: Willie Bloomquist willed the Royals to victory last night. He singled in the first to set up a run. He homered with two outs in the fifth to tie the game. After hitting into a fielder’s choice in the seventh, he stole second base and then scored on Butler’s single. In the ninth he singled again, stole second again, but was stranded at third base. In the 11th he was sent up to bunt, but walked instead to key the three-run rally. It might not last for long, but for now: all hail The Golden Spork!

(That still doesn’t mean he has any business starting against a right-handed pitcher, mind you.)

- Can we all agree that the Sidney Ponson Experiment has failed? Please? Yes, Ponson has pitched well in three of his five starts – but the other two starts were so bad that he still has a 7.16 ERA. Meanwhile, Luke Hochevar is trying to become the Zack Greinke of the Pacific Coast League – after last night’s seven-inning shutout he’s 5-0 with a 1.13 ERA. Is common sense really that rare a commodity in the Royals’ front office?

“We looked at the video,” Hillman said. “We see stuff. Hopefully, sooner than later, it will play out. I plan on him making his next start if that’s the question.”

I think we have our answer.

- Should we be a little worried about Juan Cruz? It’s not just his performance last night, it’s the fact that in 11.1 innings, he has just six strikeouts. For a guy who had 158 Ks in 113 innings the last two years, it’s something which warrants watching.

- There is a body of evidence which suggests that when it comes to platoon splits, all hitters are essentially equal – if one player shows a larger platoon split than another, it’s likely due to pure luck.

I can only assume this evidence did not take into account the curious case of one Miguel Olivo.

Olivo is having a pretty awful year overall, but once again he’s hitting lefties: he’s 8-for-26 (.308) against them with a double, triple, and homer. The problem is that he’s 3-for-27 against RHP with 13 strikeouts. Watching Olivo, it’s pretty obvious the reason for the discrepancy: the man is completely hypnotized by the slider. He can neither identify nor lay off it.

Statistically speaking, Buck is a similar player, but his approach against RHP is much, much better, and I hope that Hillman eventually adopts a platoon of sorts, starting Buck against RHP and Olivo against southpaws (with Buck occasionally DHing). Olivo’s career line against RHP is .222/.258/.365. There’s no reason to give those numbers relevance any more than necessary.

- Finally, from the “Awkward Moments in Radio Broadcast History Department”: this week’s podcast is here. Towards the end of our interview with Keith Law, my connection to the studio suddenly died. I quickly called back in, and when Keith was still talking about Mike Moustakas when I finally got re-connected, I was hopeful that no one would notice my absence.

But then Keith finished his sentence, and there was a pause for a second…two seconds…five seconds, before my co-host Jason Anderson finally rescued us by saying, “I completely agree.” What I didn’t know was that just seconds before I got re-connected, Keith had started his sentence by saying, “Rany, I think this kind of up your alley too” – setting me up for a reply which never came. You can hear this exchange around 39 minutes in, if you’re the kind of person who, you know, holds up traffic to look at car accidents.

Also, this is a good time to point out that I should be making regular appearances promoting the show every Monday morning on The Border Patrol with Steven St. John and Nate Bukaty, usually a little after 9 o’clock.


ChasingMoney said...

The Ponson experiment was a failure. There is no reason for Hoch not be in KC this week other than stubbornness on DM's part.

ChasingMoney said...

Look at today; no hit through 6 innings and trailing 4-0 they storm back to take a 5-4 lead. Callaspo doubles home tying and go ahead runs. Now in the 8th inning Spork triples and Teahen walks.

This is a different Royals team.

Anonymous said...

Watching last night's game on MLB.TV, was pretty exciting. And as I type comment, the Royals are leading 6-4 with the 9th inning about to start of today's game. I'm actually starting to think maybe we have a better team this year than I thought. And you are right, we didn't win that one last year, or in '07, even with Soria available. I don't think we'd win that one anytime since Brett was playing.

JWalker said...

Add today's win to the list of games the former Royals would have had no shot at winning. These last 2 games are exactly the kind of games an up and coming team needs to learn how to win.

Is it weird that I had a good feeling about this game even with Horacio coming in to pitch?

Nathan said...

Olivo could hit -.222/-.258/-.365 for all I care as long as he continues to inspire Zack Greinke's muse.

Nathan said...

The last few games have convinced me that sometimes--albeit only sometimes--the baseball insiders are on to something when they talk about guys who "just know how to win." The way Scutaro and Bloomquist have just taken over and willed their respective teams to victory can't be ignored, and is probably really hard to quantify. Now, I still think this ability is vastly overrated by a lot of commentators, but there really is an aspect to winning that's hard to quantify.

Shelby said...

I love winning this series, and I agree with everyone about last night's and today's awesome wins.

But Rany posted that box score from 2003 and then I got kinda depressed. I thought they were legit back then, but we all know now that we were playing over our heads...

Unknown said...

If it makes you feel better Shelby, most of our team isn't playing over their heads. Sure, Bloomquist, Callaspo, and Teahan are, but the rest are struggling. The only foreseeable sustainable difference in comparison to past trends would be Crisp's walks. The difference is that unusual suspects are carrying us while the ones we expected to contribute are struggling.

In 2003, everyone except Sweeney and Beltran were playing over their heads. That team had no room to improve or fail. We have been failing (hitting, HoRam/Ponson starts, and unfortunate bullpen moves), and still are winning a majority of our games.

Also of note, in 2003 our best pitchers were Darrell May and Curt Leskanic. I'm feeling much better about our team as of now.

EddieK said...

Is Callaspo for real? And do you think Hillman benches Bloomquist when he comes down to earth?

Scott Shanks said...

What was up with Olivio's suicide attempt when he tried to steal home on a 3-2 pitch with two outs and he was the only runner on base? I thought he was going to get killed.

Ryan said...

We might keep Ponson another start to make sure Meche's back is okay. I may have missed that he's pitched since his back was wonky. I'm just throwing it out there. I think Ponson should be gone.

Anonymous said...

Anyone care to explain the "Willie Bloomquist = Waldo" name calling thing on baseball tonight? I don't get it.

Anonymous said...

hey true fan ryan

he threw today

Anonymous said...

No way should we trade Olivo (regarding your last comments during your show). If Zack thinks his pitching success is because of Olivo, the guy must stay with the team.

ejfunk said...

Rany-Just listened to the 5/1 podcast. Great show! Kieth Law is still a tool, and thank you for supporting Royals Nation against that little twerp. Kieth hates Royals fans and we hate him more!!! Great job Rany, keep it up!

Unknown Royals Fan said...

Rany - I think the Ponson experiment was a worthwhile one. As I've noted on my blog, I'd still rather see Hochevar have an extended run of success at Omaha. But it appears that neither Ponson nor Bannister are willing to step up and keep him down on the farm.

As for the game the other night, all I had were questions, questions, and more questions. And a drink in my hand. (I blogged under that combination.) Yesterday's win was much more enjoyable and more authoritative. That said, it does appear that our Royals are stepping up and announcing their presence.

And I'm liking the Spork, but I didn't holler when he was signed, either.

chuckodb said...

Can anyone tell me what happened on the Aviles strikeout/Olivo stealing home play? I was watching the game at the 810 zone and the volume was not on the game. Why didn't they have to tag or throw out Aviles after the third strike? I thought the catcher didn't field the pitch cleanly.

Anonymous said...

Is anyone sure of the date in which Hochevar would not trigger FA a year sooner? I've seen May 6, May 23 and April 24.

Curtis said...

Chuck, you are correct that the catcher didn't make the catch cleanly on the Aviles strikeout. However, the way the rule is written, if the batter just heads back to the dugout, then he is out. Had Mike run toward first, then the catcher would have had to tag or throw him out. He seemed just as confused as the rest of us and just wanted the heck out of the way.

Anonymous said...

aviles was tagged out after the strikeout

chuckodb said...

Thanks Curtis. Pretty tough for Aviles to make an effort toward first in that situation. We made some fielding/baserunning mistakes in those last two games and still found ways to win. Those were both big wins for a team trying to prove to everyone, including themselves that they are contenders.

Antonio. said...

I mostly believe in catering to Zack but as a reminder mostly, the last person he gave credit to helping him (David Riske) left the team and Zack lost nothing.

Antonio. said...

"That said, it does appear that our Royals are stepping up and announcing their presence...

...with authority."

Antonio. said...

And I really never did like the dropped third strike rule. It's bad enough to feel foolish for striking out, but it's even worse that you could still get on and you get tagged out and appear to have your head up your behind.

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