Friday, April 17, 2009

No Reason To Jump Hip.

You’re right: that was an awful pun.

This will be a short post, I’m afraid; I’m playing in a Stratomatic tournament this weekend, which hopefully goes as well as my last one did. Before we get to Alex Gordon, go ahead and listen to this week’s podcast here. The news about Gordon created an opportunity to get an opinion from an injury expert, so be sure to listen to the beginning of the show, where my Baseball Prospectus colleague Will Carroll joins us and explains what’s wrong with Gordon’s hip, and whether this injury is likely to create additional difficulties for him even when he returns. Of course, once you’re done listening to Carroll, you’ll probably want to stick around and listen to BP’s Kevin Goldstein discuss the state of the Royals’ farm system, including the mention of a “sleeper” prospect that almost made me fall out of my chair. And at that point, well, you might as well listen to the whole darn show, right?

Also, due to a scheduling conflict, next week’s show will be THIS MONDAY (the 20th) at 8 PM, an hour later than usual. We don’t have any special guests scheduled yet – although I could always surprise you – so we’ll probably open the phones up for a big part of the show. So be ready to call in.

Anyway, yeah, the news about Gordon sucks any way you look at it – when the guy who I labeled the single most important player in determining the Royals’ playoff hopes goes out for half a season, there’s no way to spin that as a positive. But it’s not the end of the world either.

For one, we at least have some explanation for why he played as poorly as he did in the season’s first week. I wasn’t all that worked up about his 2-for-21 start, but given how lost he looked at the plate after returning to the lineup on Tuesday and Wednesday, it’s a relief of sorts to know that something really was wrong with him.

Secondly, as I talked about in March, the Royals are about as well-built to handle a key injury as they can be, thanks to Teahen. (If Willie Bloomquist is the Spork, what does that make Teahen? A solid-gold Swiss Army knife, the one that’s like 2 inches thick and has 43 different gizmos attached?) Teahen’s flirtation with second base gets the cold shower for a few months, so Gordon’s bat essentially gets replaced with Alberto Callaspo’s. That’s not an insignificant difference, but Callaspo is himself an asset in a starting role. The Royals lose some power, but don’t lose much if anything in terms of baserunners – a few of Gordon’s walks get exchanged for singles. Jose Guillen should be back in right field in a week or so, and in the meantime we may get to see a little Mitch Maier – who’s perfectly capable of filling in for the short-term. Maier is a very good defensive outfielder – a DeJesus-Crisp-Maier outfield is as much an asset as the infield (in whatever permutation) is a liability.

Finally, I hope the Royals use this injury as an excuse to give Gordon something they should have given him two years ago – some more reps against minor-league pitching. So much of Gordon’s struggles have always seemed more mental than physical to me, the way he’ll occasionally let a perfectly hittable fastball go by and then swing wildly at a pitch he has no hope of reaching. Much like Teahen benefited from a refresher course in Omaha in 2006, I think a few weeks (20 days is the maximum length for a rehab assignment) of batting against Triple-A pitchers may help to remind Gordon that hey, he’s better than these guys. A little confidence boost may help Gordon when he returns to the majors. Major league pitchers make mistake pitchers just like minor league pitchers do – they just make fewer of them. Gordon needs to stop giving opposing pitchers so much credit. He needs to be ready to turn on those mistakes, while remembering that if they don’t make a mistake, he’s good enough to find a way to hit them anyway.

All of this is just fishing for straws. This injury hurts. But as I write this, the Royals are destroying the Rangers 9-0 in the seventh. If Coco Crisp keeps taking his walks (he’s up to 10 now, second in the league, after leading the majors in spring training), and if Teahen keeps hitting and John Buck keeps bashing and if Meche keeps spinning zeroes…I think that, with or without Gordon, the Royals are going to be competitive.

Alex Gordon might be the most important player on the roster. But he’s just one player. More than they have been in a long time, the Royals are a team built to survive the loss of any player.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

First Place! (For Now.)

This post may be partially outdated by the time you read this, as I’m writing this in the middle of the ballgame today – which means I may interrupt my writing as events warrant – and in between patients. (Including the Royals fan this morning who drove here all the way from Iowa (!) to see me. That’s dedication, folks. The rest of you need to step things up.) But any time I have the opportunity to write about the undisputed first-place Kansas City Royals…I’m going to take it.

Let’s try to keep things in perspective – last year the Royals started 6-2 and I was equally excited. (They then lost 11 of their next 14 games.) Still, there’s a lot to like here.

- You know all that concern about the quality of the team’s defense? The Royals seem to have hit upon a really effective solution to that problem – simply keep the defense from being involved. Through eight games, the pitching staff has struck out 76 batters – which leads the majors, comfortably – in just 71 innings. That is, in a word, sick. Just two years ago the Royals were next-to-last in the league in strikeouts; the year before that they were dead last. Last season the Royals ranked 7th in the league, which was their highest ranking since Cone and Appier led the Royals to 6th in strikeouts in 1994. From 1999 to 2006, the Royals ranked in the bottom three in the league in whiffs every single year.

They’re not going to continue to strike out more than a batter an inning, but this is a genuine power staff. The bullpen, in particular, is ridiculous – in 23 innings, they’ve whiffed 28 and surrendered just 14 hits. I’ve said this before, but in terms of “power stuff”, however that’s defined, Joakim Soria is only the fourth-most overpowering guy in the pen. If the Royals only have to rely on their defense for 65-70% of their outs instead of their usual 75-80%, suddenly the idea of Mark Teahen at second base or Mike Jacobs anywhere on the field is a lot more palatable.

- Ever since Gerald V. Hern coined a little ditty in the Boston Post about Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain, sportswriters have felt the need to come up with cheesy slogans for any team that heavily relies on two starting pitchers. Hence, the 2001 Diamondbacks were “Johnson and Schilling and then, God Willing.”

For the Royals, we’ve got to come up with a rhyme that incorporates three pitchers. “Meche, Greinke, and Davies, then Hide the Women and Babies?” “Meche, Davies, and Greinke, then For Two Days We’ll Be Cranky”? Clearly, this is a work in progress. Just as clearly, we’re going to need a slogan before long. The Royals are 5-1 when the Big Three start, and collectively they’re 3-0 with a 1.91 ERA, 41 strikeouts in 37.2 innings, and no homers allowed. The Little Two are 0-2 with a 6.61 ERA.

- The Little Two might just be the Microscopic One. Sidney Ponson gave another yeoman’s effort this afternoon. The Royals may be in the market for another starter this summer – if the Royals are in the race, a trade of Kila Ka’aihue for a good starter in the last year or two of his contract is a distinct possibility – but in the short term, if Hochevar or Bannister (three hits in seven scoreless for Omaha yesterday) replaces Horacio Ramirez, I have no qualms with seeing Ponson in the #5 role in the near term.

Remember, the sensation that was Lima Time! in Kansas City stemmed from the fact that Jose Lima, a refugee from the Atlantic League, was effectively the team’s #2 starter down the stretch in 2003. Ponson isn’t likely to do much worse than Lima’s 4.91 ERA that year – yet Ponson is at best the team’s #4 starter. In case you were looking for a reason to take this team more seriously than the 2003 squad, there you go.

- You know what’s even more amazing than the strikeout ratio? The pitching staff has surrendered two homers in nine games – that’s as many all year as John Buck hit in one game. That’s two homers in 80 innings. Yeah, that won’t last. But it’s still impressive.

- Davies’ performance to date has been the most important development to date, but the goings-on behind the plate aren’t far behind. It got quickly lost in the shuffle with all the money thrown at HoRam and The Professor and The Spork, but the decision to bring Miguel Olivo back was mystifying at the time, and only more so today. Olivo and John Buck have remarkably similar profiles; Olivo has the much better arm, but Buck does everything else behind the plate just as well if not better. As hitters they have identical records, but Buck is younger, he has a clue about the strike zone, and he had those two months in 2007 that make you think, hmmm...throw in Brayan Pena, whose talents are such that the Royals have made room for him as their third catcher, and you have to wonder why the Royals didn’t just keep Pena as their backup to Buck, let Olivo walk, and pocket the difference.

Instead, they not only kept Olivo, they anointed him the starter – or at least, the dominant half of a job-sharing arrangement. Given the context, then, what’s happened during the first nine games has a lot of significance. As I write this, Olivo is 3-for-21 with 13 strikeouts – and he looks so lost at the plate that I’m beginning to wonder if the LASIK doctors operated on the wrong patient this winter. Buck, given precious few opportunities to start, has taken every advantage, homering and doubling in his second start, and homering twice in his third. He’s back in the lineup as the DH against a lefty today, but he’s poised to take over the lion’s share of the duties behind the plate if Olivo doesn’t learn to wait until the pitcher has actually released the ball before deciding whether he should swing at the pitch. I wrote barely two weeks ago that “If the Royals do go to the playoffs, I’m guessing Buck, not Olivo, will be the starter behind the plate.” No reason to delay the inevitable.

- I was all for getting Brayan Pena more playing time in my last post, but starting him at DH wasn’t what I meant. But hey, it worked out. Pena’s double off of Phil Coke on Sunday, with a man on first and the Royals down a run in the eighth, is probably the biggest hit of the season to date. According to, prior to Pena’s at-bat the Royals had a 24% chance of winning the game – and the odds were certainly less when you consider the Royals were one out away from facing the greatest reliever of all time in the ninth. After his hit, the odds improved to 58%. Instead of being swept at home in the first series at the Kougar (hat tip: Sam), the Royals got back to .500.

What’s easy to forget about the three-run rally that inning was how it started: with two outs and no one on, Billy Butler pinch-hit for Mike Jacobs against Jose Veras…and walked. Credit Trey Hillman for the move – Jacobs was due to face Damaso Marte, who has been annihilating left-handed hitters for most of the decade. Butler against a generic right-hander represented better odds there, and for all the talk about how Jacobs was going to play every day this year even though he’s never hit left-handers, Hillman hasn’t been shy about limiting his reps against lefties. The Royals have faced five left-handed starters in their first nine games, and Jacobs has been benched twice (including today) in addition to getting pulled in that key situation.

But if Butler expands his strike zone (as pinch-hitters are wont to do) and gets himself out, then Mariano Rivera pitches the ninth and the rally never materializes. Instead, the Royals got their first three-run inning of the season. The next time they came to the plate – in the first inning against Fausto Carmona on Monday night – Crisp and DeJesus walked in the first, and both of them came around to score in the Royals’ second three-run inning of the season. Then last night, with the Royals trying to add some insurance runs in the eighth inning, Alex Gordon walked to load the bases and set up Buck’s grand slam. In today’s game, the Royals staged a two-run rally in the sixth on a leadoff walk by Coco Crisp, a single by Willie Bloomquist, a run-scoring grounder – and then after Buck whiffed with a man on third and two out, the Royals got consecutive walks from Mark Teahen, Jacobs (returning the favor as a pinch-hitter for Butler), and Gordon again to force in the tying run. It doesn’t look like it will be enough, thanks to Farnsworth, but the Royals never put rallies like these together in the past – at least, their hitters never did.

- A double, a popout, a tie-breaking single, a balk, and a walk. Ladies and Gentlemen, Kyle Farnsworth! I can’t pin this one on Hillman; it’s a tie game in the seventh inning, Juan Cruz threw two shutout innings last night, and someone has to pitch. No, Dayton Moore can try to dodge the overripe vegetables this time around. That sound you hear is Farnsworth sliding down the reliever totem pole; the next time the Royals need a middle reliever in a tie game in the middle innings, I suspect Robinson Tejeda will be that someone.

- Since Opening Day, Hillman has done a very solid job with the bullpen. Some may question having Ron Mahay start the ninth with a 4-0 lead on Monday, then switching to Soria after the first two batters reached base and lefties coming up. I’m fine with this move, though. Soria is more effective against lefties than righties, and Mahay doesn’t have a huge platoon split, so this is a situation where platoon considerations take a backseat to the game situation – and with the tying run on deck against an intradivision rival, a rival who was considered the favorite to win the division when the season started but who are three outs away from being 1-5…I say you go for the jugular. And what better weapon is there to cut the jugular than The Guillotine?

Cruz has now pitched two full innings twice this season, which is more times than he pitched two innings all of last year. To repeat: the cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers approach to the bullpen is the worst thing about baseball strategy today. If a reliever has the hot hand, why not ride him? Hillman did, and he got a second shutout inning each time.

- If Bloomquist and Tony Pena are ever in the same lineup again, there better be a good reason. Like, say, a breakout of impetigo in the clubhouse. Granted, with Ponson on the mound the infield defense is a greater consideration than usual – and with the Royals losing, Hillman pinch-hit for both of them to give us the much more imposing Mike Aviles-Alberto Callaspo combination late in the game.

- Mike Jacobs has done the impossible: he’s made Royals fans excited to see Billy Butler playing first base. And Butler has done the impossible: he’s giving us reason to think he might actually progress to adequate out there. I’ve been advocating all winter that Butler should be allowed to start at first base – he hasn’t played the position long enough to prove he can’t play it, while Jacobs has. He’s made enough good plays this month to prolong this experiment a little longer – like, say, all season. If the Royals approach the aesthetic ideal of using Jacobs purely as a DH, and solely against RHP, the Jacobs acquisition almost starts to make sense.

- Teahen has the reputation (at least with Royals fans) of being an excellent baserunner, and deservedly so, but…man. Getting thrown out trying to extend a single when you’re down two runs in the eighth is just dumb. Doing so immediately before Jacobs hits another homer is just heart-breaking.

It’s a tough loss. But the Royals were never going to go undefeated in one-run games this year. They’re still in first place. They put together rallies in three straight innings and just fell a run short. If I may tempt fate and quote Herm Edwards, the Royals can build on this. I just hope they also learn not to let Farnsworth destroy it.

(Tomorrow, 7 PM CDT, 810 WHB. And be ready to call in.)