Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Royals Today: 4/22/2009.

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Also, I’ve figured out how to subscribe to the podcast through iTunes, if you’re looking for a way to take the podcast with you on your iPod. Open up iTunes, go to “Advanced” at the top, and select “Subscribe to Podcast”. Then enter this URL:

(Late update: reader Brad comments in my last post that he has requested that iTunes add the show to their list of available podcasts. It doesn’t appear to be up yet, but hopefully in my next post I’ll have instructions on that.)

- In its own way, last night’s game was every bit as frustrating as Sunday’s, if not more so. The Royals collectively batted 13-for-34, with four walks, a HBP, three doubles, and a homer – their line for the game was .382/.462/.559. Ordinarily that’s a line that should produce a double-digit run total – assuming you don’t ground into a franchise-record six double plays in the game.

Even so, the Royals scored seven runs, which is enough to win most nights – and would have been enough to win every game the Royals had played up to this point. The Royals had not surrendered more than six runs in a game all season, but Sidney Ponson matched that total by the fourth inning, and frankly he was lucky it wasn’t worse. For the game the Indians actually had more batters reach safely (19) than the Royals did (18), thanks to nine walks, and left nine runners on base compared to the Royals’ six.

Every one-run loss eats at you in a different way, and the Royals are now 1-3 in one-run games this year. But I’m a lot more upbeat after this game than after Sunday’s. This time we didn’t lose because of managerial incompetence*; we lost because our batters, while very productive overall, hit ground balls at infielders at the most inopportune times. Productivity is a lot more consistent than serendipity. The 18 baserunners who reached, the way the Royals mounted threats in almost every inning, the way they battled back to score six runs in two innings off the Indians’ bullpen – that tells us more about what the Royals are capable of going forward than the fact that they hit ground balls with a man on first and less than two outs in six straight innings.

*: I have no significant issue with Hillman bringing in Juan Cruz to pitch the eighth with the Royals down a run, even though Cruz wound up giving up a two-run homer to Victor Martinez that proved crucial to the outcome. Cruz is clearly our second-best reliever, and he just picked a bad time to give up his first two runs of the season. Still, it must be said: Joakim Soria has not pitched in nine days. Since Soria last pitched, Kyle Davies and Sidney Ponson have both started TWICE. And for the second straight game, if Soria had been called upon to pitch in the eighth inning of a one-run game, the Royals likely would have won.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s important to remember that while the Royals should have a better record than 7-6…the Royals should have a better record than 7-6. We still have over 90% of the season left ahead of us. The fact that the Royals have underachieved to this point is frustrating, but it’s also exciting, because it means that the Royals are above .500 and tied for first place while underachieving. The Royals have scored 57 runs and allowed 46 runs, a run differential which, when plugged into the Pythagorean formula, yields a .605 winning percentage. (Using the slightly more accurate Pythagenport formula, we get a projected .595 winning percentage.) That projects to either 7.9 or 7.7 wins so far this year, which means the Royals have lost roughly one game more than they should have based on their run totals.

That win may well be crucial – but the greater point here is that the Royals have basically played like a .600 team so far this year. There’s still 149 games left; if they play like a .600 team the rest of the season, they’re going to win 95 games and we’re probably not going to care all that much about a couple of April losses.

They’re not going to play like a .600 team the rest of the way, unless Meche-Greinke-Davies continue to combine for a 1.69 ERA all season. But the Royals have a winning record, and it’s not a fluke. That’s something to build on. (And keep in mind, the Tigers have an even better run differential (72 RS, 55 RA) and the same 7-6 record. We’re not the only ones underperforming so far.)

- Thank God at least one member of the Royals’ brain trust is able to admit when he’s made a mistake. The Horacio Ramirez Starter Experiment lasted exactly one start before he was shuttled off to the only role he’s shown himself capable of filling: left-handed long reliever. He’s vastly overpaid for the role, obviously, but the money’s spent either way. The Royals do need a second lefty in the pen, so maybe Ramirez can work his way up to being the LOOGY that the Royals need, freeing Ron Mahay up for less specialized work.

I’m surprised that the Royals went with Brian Bannister in his place rather than Luke Hochevar, but I can understand the reasoning, even from a non-financial perspective. Hochevar has the better ERA in Omaha (1.89 vs. 3.46), but ERA is almost meaningless as an indicator of quality over the span of three starts. Bannister has walked one batter and struck out eight in 13 innings of work, and in his last two starts has worked nine scoreless innings with three hits and no walks. Hochevar has just five walks in 19 innings – but also has only nine strikeouts. Cool Hand doesn’t need strikeouts to be effective, given his groundball tendencies, but it’s still a sign that he’s not exactly dominating the competition.

It’s a coin-flip, basically, so if you’re the Royals, why not – despite Dayton Moore’s protests to the contrary – let the non-baseball factors make the decision for you? Hochevar came into the season with 1 year, 17 days worth of service time. However, there’s a cushion of about 10 days built into the season – you only need 172 days of service time to get credited with a full year, but there’s something like 183 days in the season. So if the Royals keep Hochevar in Triple-A for about 28 days, they can delay free agency by a full year. The Royals are going to deny that as a consideration for obvious reasons, but really, shouldn’t it be a consideration? Hochevar’s a Boras client – you don’t think he’s going to use his leverage to go to the highest bidder as soon as he hits free agency?

This is the way the game is played – both sides use whatever leverage they have. I thought it was silly to send Hochevar to Triple-A at the beginning of the year because he was better than two of the guys that were picked to be starters. But now one of them is in the bullpen, and if Ponson pitches like he did last night again, he’ll probably be gone in a few weeks. At which point the deadline has passed, and the Royals can go back to the five-man rotation they had last year – the rotation I’ve argued they should have had all along this year.

- As atrocious as Hillman’s bullpen management is, he’s always done a pretty good job of getting his bench players involved, and yesterday is a terrific example of this. In the eighth inning, with the score 6-1, the Indians brought in the sidearmer Joe Smith to pitch against Mike Aviles. Aviles has struggled in the early part of the season, but still, he’s the guy who hit .325 last year. Still, Hillman did the right thing, calling on Brayan Pena to get the platoon advantage against a pitcher where the platoon advantage is almost as important as actually being able to hit. Pena doubled, the first of five Royals to reach base in a row and the start of a four-run rally.

- What ended that rally was a groundball double play from Miguel Olivo, and what’s sad is that the most remarkable thing about the outcome was that Olivo actually made contact with the baseball: he has whiffed in nearly half of his plate appearances (13 of 28) so far this year. His OPS+ is 9, which is approaching Tony Pena Jr. territory.

He’s better than this in terms of outcome, but this is who he is in terms of style: someone whose mid-range power can’t compensate for his appalling command of the strike zone, and someone who has never hit right-handed pitching in his career. This is one of those Common Sense Tests that Hillman has been struggling with all month: do you continue to use the catcher hitting .143/.143/.286 more often than the catcher hitting .409/.480/.909? Sometimes when a question seems to have an obvious answer, it’s a trick question. Sometimes, the answer really is that obvious. John Buck needs, and deserves, to start behind the plate at least 60% of the time. No, Buck can’t throw. But Olivo can’t hit, and one skill is more important than the other.

Zack Greinke reportedly loves working with Olivo, which is fine: make Olivo his personal catcher. I’m not typically thrilled with the “personal catcher” meme, but for the Royals it works, because Olivo and Buck have similar enough skill sets that there’s no point in picking Olivo’s starts based on the opposing pitcher or ballpark or whatever. Besides, if Greinke wants Olivo to catch him, I think I speak for all Royals fans when I say, MAKE OLIVO HIS STARTING CATCHER.

If Greinke wants Willie Bloomquist to start at first base, make it so. He wants his centerfielder to be a lucky fan selected from Section 107 before the game? Cool. He wants to set up a Chipotle serving table in the dugout? I recommend the green chili. He wants Kyle Farnsworth to close for him? I know a good facial reconstructive surgeon – Zack will never know the difference. (Though we’ll have to come up with a good excuse for how Farnsworth lost two inches and fifty pounds, and now speaks with a Mexican accent. We’ll need an even better excuse to explain how Farnsworth now throws strikes and doesn’t give up homers in every inning.)

- Has anyone else noticed what a crazy year Robinson Tejeda is having? So far this season he has faced 20 hitters. Two of them have hit fly ball outs; one of them grounded out. Those are the only three batters to put the ball in play. Of the other 17, 10 struck out, five walked, and two were hit by a pitch. Tejeda has also balked once, thrown two wild pitches, and picked up another out when the runner on third tried to score on another wild toss but was thrown out at the plate.

Last night’s game was a masterpiece. His line reads: hit by pitch, wild pitch (scoring an inherited runner), strikeout, strikeout to end the fourth. Then in the fifth, walk, balk, strikeout, and walk, before he was lifted. I believe tonight’s game will be delayed a few minutes to accommodate Tejeda’s induction into the Three True Outcomes Hall of Fame.

Tejeda has been as effective as anyone in the bullpen this year, but eventually he’s going to give up a hit, so unless he learns to curb the other base runners, and to curb the free bases to the guys already on base, he’s due for a blowup. Still, it’s hard to believe the Texas Rangers put this guy on waivers less than a year ago.

- Mike Jacobs is a remarkable player in many ways, as Joe Posnanski has pointed out, but the most remarkable thing he has done is to make me write a sentence I’d never thought I’d write: the Royals need Billy Butler’s glove in the game. Jacobs’ NC-17 defense on a routine grounder by Hank Blalock on Sunday was the turning point in the loss. Jacobs has only one major league skill, but fortunately it’s the most important skill in baseball: he can hit right-handed pitching. They need to let him focus on that skill, and leave everything else to the professionals.

- It’s early, but Kevin Seitzer is earning his keep so far. The Royals have drawn 43 walks in 13 games, on pace for 536 for the season (after drawing 392 last year), and ranking a respectable 9th in the league. Bam Bam isn’t hitting for power yet, but for the first time he’s showing the plate discipline (7 walks in 41 AB) he had in the minors. Coco Crisp has 11 walks in 13 games; on top of his spring training performance, it is quite possible that we’re seeing a dramatic change in his plate approach.

- Finally – and I’m sure I’ll regret this – I’ve jumped on the bandwagon and opened a Twitter account. I have no idea what it’s for or what the hype is about, but then I’m still trying to figure out what’s the point of Facebook, other than (because everyone else is signing up) I’ve been able to locate a bunch of friends I went to school with 20 years ago. (It’s not like we actually say anything to each other – but still, I know where to find them.)

So if you’re into Tweeting, then you can find me at Jazayerli. I have no idea if I’m going to use it yet or not, though if I do it will probably be to talk about the Royals. (In 140 characters or less? Seriously? I haven’t finished clearing my throat in 140 characters or less.) So feel free to follow me if you like. If you don’t, don’t worry: you won’t miss anything worthwhile.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Another Injury To Overcome.

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it appears that having already lost the services of Alex Gordon for half the season, the Royals have suffered another blow to their playoff hopes. Joakim Soria is out indefinitely with an apparent inability to pitch.

I say “apparent” because there has no been no confirmation from the Royals on the subject. I hesitate to say that Soria is injured, because there is no evidence of an actual injury.

Nonetheless, it appears quite certain that the Mexicutioner is suffering from an ailment that prevents him from pitching. That is because the alternative explanation is that Trey Hillman has the IQ of a barnyard animal, and I think we can all agree that barnyard animals possess neither the intellect nor the communication skills necessary to obtain a job as major league manager in the first place.

See, after pitching (and picking up saves) in four of the Royals’ first seven games, Soria had not pitched in the last four – his last outing came on April 13th. He’s fully rested, and more, the Royals have an off-day tomorrow. If ever there was a game where Soria ought to be pitching, it was this one. Even if the game was a blowout, he ought to come in. Hillman said so himself. “We’ll get Jack some work somehow,” Royals manager Trey Hillman said before Sunday's game.

So clearly, Soria is suffering from an inability to pitch. If he were able to pitch, I’m certain we would have seen him to start the eighth inning this afternoon, this being the perfect time to give Soria a two-inning save opportunity with the Royals leading by a pair of runs.

Or, after Ron Mahay gave up a double to Andruw Jones that bounced out of David DeJesus’s glove, and then after Mike Jacobs performed that weird interpretive dance he loves to do, “Waltz With Baseball”, that allowed Hank Blalock to reach base safely, then Soria would have come in. Certainly, Hillman would not have caused the bottom to fall out of my stomach when the bullpen door opened to reveal Jamey Wright to pitch with none out and the tying run at first base. Not unless Soria was suffering from AITP.

And when Wright got a slow dribbler for the first out, and a flyout from David Murphy for the second, and then Chris Davis pinch-hit for Taylor Teagarden with two outs and the tying runner in scoring position – I mean, there’s no way Hillman would have left Soria in the bullpen at that moment if he hadn’t been suffering from AITP. The fact that Soria was briefly shown lightly warming up in the bullpen alongside Kyle Farnsworth at the time was no doubt a clever ruse by Hillman, whose intellect clearly works on a plane that us mere baseball fans can not understand.

And after Wright got out of the inning (but not before surrendering the game-tying single to Davis), and the Royals went quietly in the top of the ninth inning, and the Royals had to choose between Farnsworth and Soria to pitch the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game, surely there’s no way a sentient and bipedal primate would look at those two options and choose Captain Goodnight* – not unless Soria was suffering from AITP. (And evidently, Robinson Tejeda may have a mild case of AITP as well – our sources are looking into it.)

*: There was a computer game that I remember playing in the late 1980s, when I was about 13 years old, called “Captain Goodnight”. All I remember about the game was that you were a hero that had 24 hours to save the world and get the girl, or something like that. I also remember that the game was very, very difficult to complete in time, and after weeks of trying to finish it, I finally had a game in which I hit every button in perfect synchronicity, got to the finish line with hours to spare – and then the game crashed and I was never able to play it again. Anyway, I see those aviator goggles that Farnsworth wears, and the fact that when he comes into the game you can turn off your TV and go to bed, and I think I’m going to call him Captain Goodnight from now on. (And yes, I know some of you think I’m too obsessed with nicknames. For your sake – for all our sakes – I hope I don’t have to use it very often.)

I know today’s game was a crushing loss. I know that it has ruined my day. I know it has ruined my appetite to write the Zack Greinke column that I want to write and you want to read. I know that the final two innings completely wasted a start from Kyle Davies that in its own way was every bit as impressive as the ones his big brothers made on Friday and Saturday. (After walking four batters and throwing 22 balls in 37 pitches in the first inning, Davies responded by allowing just two hits and a walk over the next five. Davies now has 21 strikeouts in 18.2 innings – and he’s our #3 starter.) I know it kept the Royals from taking over sole possession of first place. I know that it’s the second game the Royals have lost this year that they were leading after seven innings.

But please, don’t blame Hillman for this. Rest assured that there’s no way someone could spend a quarter-century playing, coaching, and managing in professional baseball, and ascend to the highest rank of his profession before he turned 45, and make the decisions that Hillman appeared to make today. It’s simply not possible that Hillman would not use Soria to protect a tight lead, even as the inning was falling apart, just because it was the eighth inning instead of the ninth. It’s not possible that instead of Soria in the ninth, he would call upon KYLE FREAKING FARNSWORTH, who now has more losses (3) than the rest of the team combined (2) in exactly 3.1 innings of work, just because it was a tie game instead of a save situation. Trey Hillman is not that stupid. No one is that stupid.

Maybe we’ll get some confirmation from the Royals on this soon. Or maybe Soria’s AITP will clear up by Tuesday, he’ll be back on the mound, and the Royals will pretend it never existed. I don’t know much about AITP – it was never listed in any of the books I read in medical school – but I suspect that it’s a very brief affliction, sort of like the 24-hour flu. After all, it didn’t exist last night, when Soria was one batter away from coming in to close out Greinke’s masterpiece. And rumor has it that Soria had AITP on Opening Day, but it cleared up in time for him to close out the game the following day.

But he clearly had AITP today. I’m sure that it’s merely a coincidence that yesterday’s game constituted a Ninth Inning Save Situation – I capitalize those words out of respect for such an august institution – and today’s game never did.

It’s tough to lose a game because Soria came down with AITP at an inopportune time. But in a way it’s a relief to know that the reason the Royals lost yet another game that they had in the bag was simply because of AITP. I mean, if Soria doesn’t have AITP, that means the Royals lost today’s game because their manager is a complete and utter moron. AITP is curable, but I’m afraid there may be no cure for imbecilic bullpen management.

Fortunately we don’t have to worry about that. Hillman’s a brilliant manager – Dayton Moore said so himself. Let’s just hope that Hillman…I mean Soria…finds a cure for his AITP soon. The Royals can’t afford to lose any more games this season because of it. I’m not sure they could afford to lose the games they already have.