Friday, January 9, 2009

Willie Bloomquist and the Howard Zone.

Man, I’m really getting tired of this sh*t.

I guess it’s appropriate that the Royals decided to interrupt my nostalgic trip to the mid-1990s by signing Willie Bloomquist, because Bloomquist reminds me of no one so much as a certain arch-nemesis of that era.

You see, if there was one player that summed up the frustration of being a Royals fan in the 1990s, it was our old pal David Howard. It’s hard enough to explain how Howard made it to the majors in the first place; he was a 32nd round draft pick, and he never hit a lick in the minors. Howard actually raised his batting average over each of his first four years in the minors – the bad news is that he started at .194 in 1987, and over the next three years raised that number to .223, .234, and finally .250 for Double-A Memphis in 1990 – the same year he hit a career-high five homers.

Howard started the 1991 season in Omaha and went 5-for-41, but was recalled as a defensive substitution at that point. Then Hal McRae had a hissy fit over his defense at mid-year, and benched Kevin Seitzer and Kurt Stillwell and made everyday starters out of Bill Pecota and Howard. Howard batted 264 times that season, and hit .216/.267/.258. That should have been the end of that, but it wasn’t. From 1991 to 1997, Howard batted at least 100 times in six years out of seven (the exception being 1993, when he was felled by a viral illness called Bell’s Palsy and missed most of the year. Two years later I started medical school, and believe me, I aced that part of the syllabus.)

In those six seasons he never hit better than .243, or slugged better than .325, or on-based better than .310 – all of those numbers coming in 1995, which impressed the Royals so much that he was made a full-time starter in 1996. He hit .219/.291/.305. The following year Howard played Vic Wertz to Jim Edmonds’ legendary catch in centerfield, but what made that play so spectacular was the fact that Edmonds had to race back so far, because he was playing so shallow. Everyone played shallow on Howard.

Howard’s continued employment, and continued performance, was so aggravating precisely because the Royals were not a terrible team at that time, and the two or three additional wins that might have come from replacing Howard with a reasonably competent player might have actually had some relevance. To this day I have not figured out how Howard was able to hold onto his job for so long, but the best explanation was that the Royals were so blinded by his versatility, his athleticism (so many times we heard that Howard was the best athlete on the team), and his clubhouse presence that they simply could not see that DAVID HOWARD COULD NOT HIT.

Howard started a game at every position except pitcher and catcher during his Royals career, and even pitched one day in a blowout, walking five batters in two innings and allowing Scott Cooper (Scott Cooper!) to complete the cycle when Cooper singled to lead off the ninth in a game the Royals lost 22-11. To borrow the line about Moe Berg, Howard could play seven positions, and to the Royals it didn’t matter that he couldn’t hit at any of them.

Every team has a David Howard on their roster at some point; it’s just that usually it’s a different guy every year. It takes a special combination of incompetence and intransigence to willfully trot out the same guy year after year when he’s already proven he can’t hit. I didn’t witness a single comparable situation to David Howard and the Royals anywhere else in baseball throughout the 1990s. But in the 2Ks – that’s what I’m calling this decade – I finally got to laugh at another team’s inexplicable fetish for a (s)crappy ballplayer. For the first time since Howard left the Royals, another player seemed to have an equally mesmerizing hold on his organization. That player was Willie Bloomquist.

Bloomquist, like Howard, has no real track record of offensive prowess even at the minor league level. Bloomquist did hit an impressive .379/.457/.523 for half a season in the California League in 2000 – playing for Lancaster, a ballpark that makes Coors Field look like Chavez Ravine circa 1965. He was promoted to Triple-A at mid-season and hit .225/.253/.277 the rest of the year. The next year, he went to Double-A and hit .255/.295/.310 as a 23-year-old – eerily similar to Howard’s .250/.316/.336 line in Double-A at the same age. In 2002, Bloomquist hit .270/.328/.383 in Triple-A, then had the best-timed one-week hot stretch in the history of baseball, more or less. Called up on September 1st, he played sparingly for three weeks, going 0-for-4 in that span. He then entered the lineup on September 22nd and over the next seven games, batted 15-for-29, a performance which basically kept him in the majors for the past six years.

Bloomquist never hit that well – or hit, period – after that, but he was already in the Howard Zone. Versatility? Bloomquist has appeared at every non-battery position at least 30 times in his career (plus 20 career appearances at DH), and has started at each of those positions at least 11 times. (That’s right: on 11 different occasions, the Seattle Mariners – an actual major league franchise – have had Willie Bloomquist in their starting lineup as the first baseman.) Athleticism? I’ll let Trey Hillman speak for the defense: “Not only the versatility, but also the speed that he adds. He's a well-above-average runner and he gives us, depending on how things shake out in Spring Training, another added element because he might be in our lineup.” Character? Dayton Moore, please rise: “He's an on-base guy, a speed-type player and a hustler," Moore said. "He's a Craig Counsell-type who really plays hard, hustles and knows how to play.” (We’ll get back to that on-base thing later.) Hillman would like to take the stand again: “The reports are off the charts on character and team play and fire for the right reasons. That definitely came through in the conversation. He's hungry; he's excited.”

Versatility? Check. Athleticism? Check (he’s like Howard, only with speed!) Character? Off the charts! Can he hit? HELL NO.

Yep, we’re back in the Howard Zone.

Oh, there are reasons to think that Bloomquist isn’t quite as bad as Howard. His career line is just .263/.322/.324, with an OPS+ of 74, but that’s positively Ruthian compared to Howard’s .229/.291/.303 and OPS+ of 57. Bloomquist not only has speed, but seems to know how to use it; he’s 71-for-87 on the basepaths in his career. And he did have a .377 OBP last season, but unfortunately that seems to be Moore’s entire frame of reference for signing him. How else do you explain Moore calling him “an on-base guy”? Ignoring that cup of coffee in 2002, Bloomquist’s career high in OBP prior to last season was .321.

I don’t know what’s sadder: that Moore thinks that Bloomquist has suddenly established a new performance level at age 30, in a sample size of under 200 plate appearances; or that in the best year of his career, Bloomquist had a .285 slugging average. I mean, I’m all about OBP uber alles, but that’s obscene. As a commenter at Baseball Think Factory pointed out – beating me to the punch on the sort of obscure trivia I love – Bloomquist had the most hits (46) in modern major league history for a player with just one extra-base hit.

What is going to make it difficult for me to sleep tonight isn’t that Moore signed Bloomquist. It’s what the signing of Bloomquist says about the thought process of the entire front office. It’s not just that he signed Bloomquist (who, when all is said and done, has a place in the major leagues as the last player on the bench.) It’s not just that he signed Bloomquist for $1.55 million a year (with incentives!) It’s that he signed Bloomquist TO A TWO-YEAR DEAL, which hurts the team not just because of the financial commitment for 2010, but because of the roster commitment for 2010.

Last year Moore offered Ross Gload a two-year contract for no reason whatsoever; Gload wasn’t an impending free agent, and the Royals had all the leverage. Without the two-year deal, Gload likely would have been a non-tender target this winter much like Joey Gathright was. Instead, he’s still on the roster because the Royals feel the need to justify that contract. If Bloomquist craps the bed in 2009, thanks to Moore, he’ll still be back to soil some more sheets in 2010.

I don’t want to hang Moore by his own words, but he leaves me no choice with quotes like these:

“He's never really been an everyday player, but he's always had good people ahead of him like [center fielder Mike] Cameron, [shortstop Yuniesky] Betancourt and [second baseman] Jose Lopez.” Oh God, here we go with Yuniesky “We offered Billy Butler for him straight up” Betancourt. If Bloomquist is the new Howard, Betancourt is shades of Angel Berroa – a .280 hitter who swings at everything under the sun, and who came into the league with a good defensive rep but whose defensive numbers now suggest he’s almost unplayable. Jose Lopez? He never had an OPS+ of even 90 before 2008. The fact that Moore thinks these guys are “good people” is galling. The fact that Bloomquist backed these guys up is not a defense of him – it’s a condemnation.

“He's a winner, he has versatility and he's a very good offensive player.” That’s right: Dayton Moore just called Bloomquist “a very good offensive player”, and that wasn’t even the most counterfactual clause in the sentence. Willie Bloomquist is a winner, Dayton? In 2001, before Bloomquist reached the majors, the Seattle Mariners won 116 games, the most in AL history. The following year, when Bloomquist made his major league debut in September, they won 93 games. Since then, with Bloomquist on the roster each year, their win totals are 93, 63, 69, 78, 88, and 61. Before Bloomquist reached the scene, the Mariners hadn’t lost more than 85 games since back in 1992 – with him, they’ve lost more than 90 games three times in the last five years. Granted, the Royals have done so four times in the last five years – maybe that makes Bloomquist a winner in Moore’s book.

I wonder if the Cardinals thought David Howard was a "winner" when they signed him after the 1997 season, paying him $1.8 million for two years to do for St. Louis what he did for Kansas City. St. Louis went 83-79 and 75-86 with Howard on the roster; in 2000, with Howard gone, they won 95 games and went to the NLCS.

There’s one way that this signing can help the Royals: if it means that they boot Tony Pena off the roster (even better, and in all seriousness, if they try Pena in relief.) If the signing of Bloomquist is an acknowledgment that Pena no longer justifies a roster spot, and that the Royals are willing to pay a slight premium for a utility player who knows his role and isn’t a complete cipher at the plate, then this isn’t a bad move. Unfortunately, all the vibes suggest that Bloomquist is actually going to get to challenge Alberto Callaspo for the starting job at second base.

And that raises the tally on “payroll spent on replacement-level talent” to:

Mike Jacobs: $3 million (approx.)

Kyle Farnsworth: $4.6 million

Horacio Ramirez: $1.8 million (plus incentives)

Willie Bloomquist: $1.55 million (plus incentives)

Total: $10.95 million

I’m not crediting the Royals for the $1.6 million it would take to fill those four roster spots at the league minimum, but then, I’m not counting Miguel Olivo ($2.7 million) and Jose Guillen ($12 million) either. And keep in mind, every one of those contracts (except Guillen’s) was given out in the midst of the worst financial situation (baseball or otherwise) since collusion ended, when an absolute offensive beast like Pat Burrell is getting 2 years/$16 million and the still-imposing Jason Giambi (I'd rather have him in 2009 than Jacobs) got 1 year, $4.5 million.

Here’s an idea, Dayton: instead of spending all this money on a bunch of guys who don’t push you into contention, why not take all this cash and dangle it in front of Ben Sheets, a guy who when healthy is potentially dominant, and as an extreme fly ball pitcher is perfectly suited for Kauffman Stadium and a DeJesus-Crisp outfield? A Greinke/Meche/Sheets front of the rotation, and suddenly the Royals are a Gordon or Butler breakout season away from being the surprise contenders of 2009. But hey, that Willie Bloomquist can hustle.

Two weeks ago I wrote this: “Dayton Moore does many things well, and he still has my support as the man who could lead the Royals to the playoffs once again. But after three off-seasons to prove himself on the free-agent market, with one notable exception (Gil Meche), all he has proven is that he is prone to wildly overspending for highly replaceable talent.” Now that he’s signed Bloomquist, I stand by these words completely. Well, accept for the part that he still has my support.

I thought that we were finally past the point of being a national laughingstock. I thought I wouldn’t have to hear that awful mixture of pity and contempt from fans of other teams anymore. I never thought the Royals would enter the Howard Zone again. Now that they have, I’m having to re-consider every nice thing I’ve said about Moore and this front office. From where I sit, Moore is looking less and less like the GM that will take us to the promised land and more and more like a really good scouting director who’s in over his head every time his owner hands him his checkbook.

Dammit, Rob. I hate it when you’re right. And when it comes to the Royals, you're almost always right.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Royals Time Capsule, Part 1.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that on November 4th, 1995, my life jumped onto a different track. That was the evening Gary Huckabay formally asked me if I wanted to help him write a baseball book – name TBD – along with the legendary creator of the DTs (well, he was a legend on, Clay Davenport. Secure in the knowledge that the first year of medical school was pass/fail, I said sure, why not – what’s the worst that can happen? (Filed under “be careful what you wish for.”) Along with Chris Kahrl and Joe Sheehan, we were completely oblivious to what we were in for.

The first copy of that book, “Baseball Prospectus ’96” (I’m looking at the cover right now, and it’s ’96, not 1996, for some reason), sold maybe 150 copies – less if you don’t count family members. The “cover” is just a thicker piece of paper stock. After the book was printed, we realized that the font we used, when bolded – as it was, for instance, for all of the players’ names – the letters bled together until they were almost illegible. Oh, and that the St. Louis Cardinals’ chapter was missing. (Seriously. The prototype of went up with the immediate intent of making that chapter available.)

Anyway, we were too dumb, too stubborn, or too single to get the hint. A second book followed (with a real cover! And the Cardinals!) Then a third (with a real publisher!) Keith Law, who joined us as writer #6 in 1997, decided a few years later that he’d have more fun working as the Assistant GM of the Toronto Blue Jays instead. A pair of guys who started as BP interns, Chaim Bloom and James Click, got hired by the Devil Rays. Keith Woolner joined the Indians. Dan Fox jumped to the Pirates. Nate Silver showed up on the Colbert Report. And the 14th edition of Baseball Prospectus comes out sometime next month. As Bono sang, “Uno, Dos, Tres, Catorce!”

And my one copy of that first book would probably be worth hundreds of dollars if I ever lost my mind and put it on eBay.

Oh look! It’s my navel!

The 14th edition of BP is also the first edition that I have not written for, and just the second that I have not written the Royals chapter for. (I could have written the chapter this year, but that would have been 8000 fewer words for my blog, and that would never do.) So instead I thought it would be fun to pull out that very first book, and see what I wrote about the Royals 13 winters ago.

I don’t think I’ve cracked open that first book in a decade, so re-reading that Royals chapter last week was very much like digging up a time capsule, a time capsule I had created for myself back when I was 20, and finally got to unwrap at age 33. I thought some of you might enjoy this trip down memory lane.

The first half of the essay is below; I’ve added some commentary in colored italics. Enjoy.


The Kansas City Royals were once the model of how to operate a successful franchise. (This was around the same time that GM was the model of how to operate a successful corporation.) With a wealthy, patient owner, a commitment to developing players from within the organization, and a GM who concocted some of the best trades in baseball history, the Royals were able to go from the depths of expansion in 1969 to a dominant force in the AL West by 1976. (The Royals built a perennial playoff team from scratch in seven years. In twice as many seasons since the 1994-95 strike, they’ve built absolutely nothing: they have no one to blame but themselves.) The talent amassed in the mid-70s was enough to keep the Royals among the elite teams in baseball for the next decade, capped with an improbable run to the World Championship in 1985.

The fly ball that Andy Van Slyke hit to Darryl Motley to close the 1985 Series closed a chapter in Royals history, however, and the Royals have spent the last 10 years more as a symbol of baseball mediocrity than baseball excellence. (Ah, mediocrity. If only we had known had good we had it then.) Winning the title in 1985 tricked the Royals into thinking that the glory days of the late 70s had come again to Kansas City, and that they would be able to continue dominating the historically-weak AL West for many years to come. The reality, of course, was that 1985 was the last gasp of a team whose once-great offense was a mere shell of itself, a team which owed everything to a great pitching staff and an otherworldly final month by George Brett. (I wrote this in the earliest days of the World Wide Web; there was no with daily logs, and a claim like this was simply unverifiable. It turns out that Brett had a pretty terrible September; he hit .210/.319/.340 from September 1st to 28th. But from September 29th until October 5th, Brett was 11-for-23 with five homers, three doubles, and 13 RBIs as the Royals won five of their last seven games, including three of four in a crucial series against the Angels. He then hit .360 in the postseason; his Game 3 performance against the Blue Jays in the ALCS is the best single-game performance in team history. So if we define “final month” as from September 29th to October 27th, Brett hit .397/.489/.808. Yeah, that seems not of this Earth.) The 1976-80 Royals featured a lineup that averaged 788 runs and 93 wins over that five-year span; not once in the last fifteen years has any Royals team matched either of those numbers. (The Royals have scored 788 runs three times since – 1999, 2000, 2003 – in the heart of the high-octane era, and with the fences at Kauffman Stadium drawn in. And 93 wins? Only once since 1995 have they won 78 games.) The World Championship team featured an anemic offense that finished 13th in the AL in runs scored, and the Royals have consistently finished in the bottom half of the AL in that category ever since.

The Royals have tried a variety of tactics to reclaim the lost greatness of the late ‘70s. Following their most successful season since 1985, the 1989 team which rode Bret Saberhagen, the Royals decided to make up for a dozen years of inactivity in the free-agent market in one offseason. The Royals succeeded only in proving that money is no substitute for intelligence in the front office, as they ignored the team’s biggest weakness – the offense – in an attempt to upgrade what was a stellar pitching staff with Storm “Run Support” Davis and Mark Davis’ evil twin brother. (I still submit that Storm – not Mark – Davis was the dumbest free agent signing in franchise history. There was no reason to think that Mark would develop Mark Davis Disease – analogous to Steve Blass Disease, only instead of suddenly and inexplicably being unable to throw strikes, you become suddenly and inexplicably unable to get anyone out. By comparison, there was EVERY reason to think that Storm Davis would suck. Just look at his 1989 season, but cover up his win-loss record first. His entire stat line is an ode to a borderline #5 starter – and remember, this was 1989, and Oakland had one of the best pitchers’ parks in baseball – but McGwire and Canseco bashed for him, Eckersley closed for him, and the Royals paid him for that 19-7 record.)

When that attempt crashed and burned, the Royals tried a new tack. They made a big trade in an attempt to beef up their offense – Saberhagen for Gregg Jefferies, Keith Miller, and Kevin McReynolds. (Quite possibly the most underrated trade in team history, largely because of the next sentence.) When the Royals saw how bad their defense had become with the influx of ex-Mets, they made an ill-advised trade to address that – Jefferies for Felix Jose. (One of the ten worst trades in Royals history, and probably the least-remembered of the top ten. Jefferies didn’t have a great 1992 season – he hit .285/.329/.404 in his one year in Kansas City – but it wasn’t a bad year, all told, for a 24-year-old third baseman, and there was plenty of reason to think he was capable of better than that – Jefferies was Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Decade for the 1980s. But Herk Robinson traded him for Felix Jose, who had put up pretty much the same numbers in 1992, only he was three years older, an outfielder, and had nothing like Jefferies’ track record. In two years with St. Louis, Jefferies hit .342 and .325 with power and speed, and made the All-Star team and garnered MVP votes both years. Jose hit .253 his first year in KC, .303 the next year, and was released just nine games into the 1995 season.) And, with the Royals now a hodgepodge of questionable talent that wasn’t going anywhere, they tried the free agent market again in an attempt to build a scrappy pitching-and-defense team that resembled that “great” Royals team of 1985. Greg Gagne and Wally Joyner were signed, Jose Lind was acquired in trade, the Royals offense continued to suffer, and the team continued to finish around .500. (Ah, .500. If only we had known how good we had it then.)


Reading this part of the essay 13 years later, I have to say that I’m impressed at how well it holds up. Last spring, I wrote the Royals chapter for a Baseball Prospectus book on the 1980s – a book that is currently on indefinite hiatus – and the analysis of the Royals decline in the 1980s that I wrote in 2008 isn’t much different than the analysis I wrote in 1995.

At least the first half of the essay. In the second half, let’s just say that Optimistic Rany makes an appearance. That’s right: in the winter of 1995-96 I was quite optimistic about the future of the Royals. Yeah, this isn’t going to end well.