Before we move on from last week’s drama – and believe me, I want to move on – I think it’s only fair to conduct a final post-mortem. I spent much of the weekend replaying what happened and trying to figure out if and how I could have handled things better. I wrote last week that “The defining hallmark of good organizations is that they are more critical of themselves than any outsider would be.” Well, that doesn’t just apply to organizations. I neither wanted nor anticipated that the situation would mushroom to the size that it did, and if I didn’t engage in some self-reflecton to see how this could have been avoided, I’d be a hypocrite. I don’t want to be a hypocrite.
I think Sam Mellinger’s take on the situation was spot-on, and that includes his criticisms of me: “Rany can write whatever he wants on his blog. But he changed his situation when he took on the radio show, and if he wants to be taken seriously and especially if he wants the Royals to help him with his show, he needs to at least make a phone call when calling for someone’s job.”
If you define a “blogger” as someone who delivers opinionated commentary over the internet from an informed but access-free perspective, then I’ve been a blogger since the founding of Baseball Prospectus over 13 years ago, which is to say for longer since the word “blogger” has existed. The part about “access-free” is critical, because that really is they lynchpin of the whole blogger/journalist dichotomy. Joe Posnanski has one of the most well-read blogs on the internet, but he’s not a blogger: he’s a journalist with a blog.
For all the criticisms that the mainstream media heap upon the blogosphere, most of them are just variations on a single theme: that bloggers neither have nor need access to the subjects they are covering, and because they don’t have access, they also don’t have accountability. It’s a simple fact of human nature that it’s a lot harder to criticize someone when you have to see them face-to-face on a regular basis.
What some members of the mainstream media – and certainly some sports franchises – fail to understand is that the lack of accountability is precisely what makes some bloggers so popular. Baseball Prospectus would never have existed if we had felt compelled to tone down our criticisms because we saw the targets of our criticism on a daily basis. When we started in 1996, the majority of major league teams were making demonstrably dumb decisions on a regular basis, and we called it like we saw it. Maybe we could have shown people like Chuck LaMar and Dave Littlefield more respect, but to do so would have been to disrespect our readers, who came to us to read the unvarnished truth instead of having smoke blown up their ass.
Blogs have evolved to serve as a set of checks and balances for traditional journalism, and while I find some of them needlessly vulgar and trashy, I make no apologies for the fact that blogs serve an invaluable purpose in the sports landscape. And not only can blogs and mainstream media coexist, they have to coexist – they can’t exist in today’s world without the other side. It would be almost impossible to blog about the Royals without the work of people like Mellinger and Bob Dutton, who go into the clubhouse on a daily basis and let us know what the Royals are doing and thinking. Flip the coin over, and without the passion and awareness of the local teams that bloggers cultivate, the Kansas City Star would have a lot fewer readers. The Star also benefits when bloggers occasionally break the taboo against speaking about uncomfortable topics – like, say, the team’s rash of injuries – that then opens the door for the newspaper to discuss the subject without risking open confrontation.
Bringing this back to the situation at hand, after 13 years of being a blogger – an unjournalist – I’ve put one foot through the doorway. And now I have to decide how far I want to take this transition from outsider to quasi-insider. I’d rather stop writing than surrender my objectivity, but at the same time, in all the years I’ve spent writing about the Royals, I’ve tried to aim my words in the direction of the team as much as to my readers. I’m not just writing to attract an audience – I’m writing to effect change in the organization. The ultimate goal of this blog is for the Royals to win.
So having spent all these years building a bridge to the Royals, it makes no sense to burn that bridge as soon as it’s been finished. I don’t want to tilt at windmills. If that means behaving a little more like a journalist and a little less like a blogger, than so be it.
Re-reading my original piece that set all of this in motion, I have no regrets about my argument and about the facts that I used to defend it. And I’d hate for this controversy to overshadow what provoked it: the Royals’ medical system is light-years behind the industry standard. That’s just a simple fact. If you don’t believe me, read this. The vanguard of major-league teams are trying to use statistics to further their understanding of injury risk – the Royals are still not convinced they should use statistics at all.
But I do think I could have made it a little less personal. While I still strongly feel that Nick Swartz is a part of the problem, the tone of my attacks presupposed a degree of certainty that I don’t have. More to the point, I could have written the exact same column, replaced “Nick Swartz” with “the medical and training staff”, and gotten the same point across.
I’d like to think that I do a good job of criticizing the Royals without crossing the line of making things personal. I’m not sure that I crossed that line this time, but I probably came closer than I should have. So going forward, I’ll try to keep this incident in mind the next time I decide to bring the hammer down. (Which won’t be long, I’m sure.) It’s not going to have an impact on 95% of my columns, honestly. But the other 5% of the time, when I’m so mad about something that I have trouble seeing straight, maybe I’ll wait until the morning before posting and sleep on it first.
Every crisis is also an opportunity, and I’ve tried to use this crisis as an opportunity to see how to handle things better in the future. I hope the Royals are doing the same thing. I think they handled things a lot worse than I did, but that’s not an excuse for me to not try to learn something from this. I mean, "better than the Royals" hasn't been a compliment since the early 1990s.
And with that, let’s move on. If I gaze any deeper into my navel I’m going to start seeing my intestines.
So how did we get into this mess? Even with their modest three-game winning streak, the Royals have won 18 of their last 54 games – they’ve won exactly one-third of their games over one-third of the season. As I write this, the best pitcher in baseball is losing to someone named Luke French, 3-0. Billy Butler has doubled three times – and has neither scored nor driven in a run, because the 1, 2, 4, and 5 hitters have yet to reach base.
If you break down all the transactions that Dayton Moore has made since taking over in
By that, I mean that when
Just look at a list of the significant acquisitions on the current roster:
Acquired based on future value:
Acquired based on present value:
*: Okay, I’m cheating. But he was such a terrible signing I get to count him anyway.
Let’s break this down.
Soria was an obscure Mexican pitcher when he was plucked out of the Rule 5 draft. Bannister had made all of eight major league appearances and his minor league track record suggested he was a #4 or 5 starter at best; most observers thought the Royals were nuts for trading Ambiorix Burgos and his 100-mph fastball for him. Callaspo had a great minor-league track record – a career .317 minor league average – but had hit just
Meche, unlike the three guys above, was an established major league pitcher when the Royals outbid everyone with a 5-year, $55-million contract. But as with Soria, Bannister, and Callaspo, Meche was targeted because of what the Royals thought he could become, not who he was.
At the time, he was a chronic underachiever with a 4.65 career ERA, who drove the Mariners and their fans crazy because the results never matched his stuff. The Royals’ front office thought that they knew how to fix him, and had the balls to gamble $55 million that they could. That gamble has paid off better than almost anyone outside the organization expected: Meche has a 3.88 ERA in a Royals uniform, and has never missed a start. The acquisition of Soria may have been Moore’s best move, but in terms of gambling on a player to do something he’s never done before and have that gamble pay off, nothing comes close to the Meche signing.
All four players have exceeded expectations since joining the Royals. All four have exceeded expectations largely because the Royals correctly predicted that they would become better players than they were at the moment they were acquired. There’s a word for that: scouting.
Now look at the other list.
I’ll dispense with Cruz because there was near-unanimous agreement that it was a savvy move at the time, given the cost and Cruz’s pedigree. Cruz’s overall numbers are down – particularly his strikeouts – but it’s not yet clear whether he’s lost his stuff or just going through a prolonged slump. And Bloomquist has been everything the Royals advertised he’d be: capable of playing everywhere on the field, fast, heady, and a better hitter than we expected.
But look at the other guys. The Royals committed $36 million to Guillen in the hopes that he would continue to hit the way he had hit the last few years – ignoring the fact that 1) he was at an age where players of his ilk tend to drop off a cliff, and 2) owing to his shoddy plate discipline, he wasn’t nearly as good a hitter as they thought he was in the first place. Olivo did hit 16 homers in both 2006 and 2007 – unfortunately, he didn’t draw 16 walks in either 2006 or 2007. The Royals can’t claim to be disappointed in how Olivo has played because he has played exactly as well – if not better – than he did before he was acquired. Olivo’s line with the Marlins was .249/.275/.422, and with
Olivo is responsible for two of the most amazing stats of the year. As one brilliant commenter on Royals Review pointed out, Olivo has reached base on a wild pitch following a strikeout three times – and has also walked three times. Olivo has reached base on a strikeout as often as he has reached base on a walk. Just as impressively, for the season Olivo has 71 strikeouts to go along with those 3 walks. No one in the history of baseball has ever struck out that many times with so few walks. The previous record holder, Rob Picciolo (with 63 Ks and 2 BBs in 1980) is probably the most infamous hacker in major league history.
The Royals wanted Jacobs because he hit 32 homers last season – not only did they neglect the fact that he had never hit more than 20 homers before, they didn’t understand that even with those 32 homers, Jacobs was not that good. He only hit .247; he only walked 36 times; he played horrible defense at the game’s easiest position. There was a reason the Marlins were so eager to trade him, and a reason that no other team was particularly eager to acquire him. The Royals also talked up the fact that Jacobs would hit for more power away from the Marlins’ spacious stadium, while ignoring the fact that Kauffman Stadium is one of the toughest home run parks in baseball.
They signed Farnsworth because
And finally there is Tony Pena, who unlike the other guys on the second list was not an established major leaguer. I would still venture that he belongs here, because when
In all of these cases, the Royals acquired a player not based on their expectation of his future potential, but based on their understanding of his current value. And just as the former can be defined as “scouting”, the latter can be defined as “statistical analysis.”
This is the
The Royals spent a major league-record $11 million in the draft last year; this year, they’ve already spent $2 million on a pair of international free agents (Korean catcher Jin-Ho Shin and Panamanian third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert), who are the two most expensive international amateur talents the team has ever signed. Post-game host Greg Schaum has tweeted that the Royals have an agreement with third-round pick Wil Myers which is being delayed only for the sake of Bud Selig’s delicate ears. If that’s the case, then for the second straight year (after fourth-rounder Tim Melville last year) the Royals will have signed a borderline first-round talent later in the draft because they were willing to spend money where others weren’t.
All that is well and good. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the
But while the rest of baseball is moving forward, the
The greatest mistakes of Dayton Moore’s tenure have been, almost without exception, when he ignored statistical analysis. He ignored the analysis that said that Jose Guillen was an overrated hitter and was at an age where he would likely become an albatross quickly. He ignored OBP entirely when he signed Olivo and traded for Jacobs. He ignored every offensive statistic ever devised when he acquired Tony Pena. He ignored every pitching statistic other than strikeouts when he gave Farnsworth nine million dollars. He ignored the fact that analysts like myself hated every one of these moves.
This disregard for statistics goes beyond the numbers that get created on the field and extends to things like contract analysis – the Royals had trouble understanding that it would have been a bad idea to trade anything for Mike Jacobs, because for the money he was going to be awarded in arbitration, he actually had negative value. That’s how you wind up spending more money on payroll than you ever have before without improving the team one whit.
Despite what Moneyball may have you believe, stats aren’t everything. But despite what Scout’s Honor might have you believe, scouts aren’t everything either. Until the Royals acknowledge that both approaches are necessary in order to build a winning team, they’re going to continue to finish near the bottom of the league in walks, they’re going to continue to spend millions on mediocre veterans, and they’re going to continue to disappoint.