Thursday, April 30, 2009

Your (Hopefully) Regular Zack Stat Pack.

I don’t know how often I’ll do one of these, but hey, as long as Zack keeps setting records, I feel obligated to report on them. So while we wait to see if the Royals can pull off a winning April, enjoy these stat nuggets. Some of these you know, some of them you probably don’t.

- Zack Greinke is the first pitcher in Royals history to go 5-0 in April.

- Greinke is the third pitcher in Royals history to win his first five starts of the season. Bret Saberhagen holds the record, with six consecutive wins to start his 1987 campaign. (He threw 51 innings in those six starts, which goes a long way towards explaining why he went 15-3, 2.47 before the Break – and 3-7, 4.61 afterwards.) The only other Royal to be 5-0 after five starts is Al Fitzmorris, in 1973*.

*: Okay, I have to report this: Fitzmorris didn’t make his season debut in 1973 until July 15th, going six solid innings, allowing three runs, walking one batter – but not striking anyone out. He didn’t make his second start until 12 days later, and threw a complete game shutout – and again, didn’t strike anyone out. In his next three starts, his lines were: 7 7 2 2 2 1, 6 4 1 1 1 1, and 9 7 1 1 1 0.

Add it all up, and Fitzmorris was 5-0 with a 1.70 ERA, having allowed just 32 hits and eight walks in 37 innings – with TWO STRIKEOUTS. That might be, in its own way, the most amazing stretch of pitching in the history of the world. His BABIP in that stretch, for the record, was .225. And you all thought Brian Bannister was lucky.

- Going back to last season, Greinke has actually won eight starts in a row. This ties a franchise record previously accomplished by three pitchers: David Cone in his Cy Young season of 1994, Bret Saberhagen in his Cy Young season of 1989…and Rich Gale in his decidedly un-Cy Young season of 1980.

(I should point out that Saberhagen won eight straight starts from July 26th to August 31st that year…and then won six straight starts from September 9th to September 30th. Saberhagen won 14 games in 15 starts – not 15 decisions, 15 starts – with a 1.52 ERA over that span. I don’t know if Greinke is pitching better than anyone in a Royals uniform ever has – but at least I know who set the bar he’s trying to clear.)

- Greinke still has a way to go to match the longest winning streak in Royals history; Rich Gale won 11 in a row in 1980, and Paul Splittorff won 11 in a row between 1977-78. Kevin Appier won nine in a row in 1992.

- Greinke has now struck out at least 7 batters in five consecutive starts. That doesn’t sound like much, but it matches the longest streak in Royals history, set by Appier in 1996. (There have been five streaks of four starts in a row with 7 or more strikeouts: three by Appier, and one by Tom Gordon.)

- I’m not going to go through all the various ways to describe Greinke’s scoreless innings streak. But I thought this was a fun way to put things in perspective. Greinke went six consecutive starts without surrendering an earned run. Since 1997, only three other pitchers (Paul Byrd, Gil Meche, and – of all people – Brandon Duckworth) have gone more than six consecutive starts without surrendering a home run.

Finally, you know how I was writing that we may have been a little harsh on Trey Hillman? Here’s more proof – just look at his competition. Wow. This would be the equivalent of Hillman pinch-hitting for Mike Aviles with Tony Pena, only if Pena had already changed into street clothes and they had to hold up the game for five minutes while he got dressed.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mea Culpa. (Sort of.)

Apparently, we’ve all been a little too hard on Trey Hillman.

I hesitate to call the following an “apology”. The things that I and others wrote about Hillman’s mystifying usage of Joakim Soria were completely fair based on what we knew at the time – and we had no reason to think that there was more to the story. My column hinting at a hidden injury for Soria was completely tongue-in-cheek, though in retrospect was shockingly accurate (a critic might say it’s the only accurate thing I’ve written this year). But it read as satire precisely because the Royals stuck to their story that the only thing wrong with Soria was the way his manager was using him. Remember, Bob Dutton and Dick Kaegel both asked Hillman, point blank, if there was anything wrong with his closer. The answer at the time was no. The answer two days later was entirely different.

But if I don’t owe Hillman an apology, at least I owe it to say I take it all back. My criticisms may have been entirely fair – but they weren’t entirely accurate. And frankly, while you never want one of your players to be injured, now that the mystery has been revealed this might actually be a best-case scenario.

Soria’s shoulder injury isn’t severe enough to put him on the DL, and while Will Carroll wrote that “I don't feel good about this one,” he admitted that was based more on a feeling than any tangible evidence. And I suspect Will might have changed his mind given that Soria threw off a mound with no problems yesterday.

“[I]t 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.”

If Hillman is guilty of anything, it’s deliberately lying about a health issue regarding one of his players in order to gain a competitive edge. That might not be sportsmanship, but it’s certainly gamesmanship. It’s an open issue as to whether teams gain an edge by hiding injury reports, but the relevant issue is that Hillman and Moore thought this would gain them an edge. They wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they weren’t trying to find one. (On the other side of the Truman Sports Complex, a couple of newly hired forty-somethings nod their head approvingly.)

The problem is that, having lied to us already, there’s no reason to trust that Hillman isn’t lying to us again, if not about the extent of the injury, then about the timing. Nonetheless, the facts check out pretty well here. Consider:

1) The Royals claim that the problem with Soria’s shoulder was first noticed when he was warming up on Saturday, April 18th, in anticipation of bailing out Zack Greinke if needed in the ninth (Greinke closed the game out for his first career shutout). This squares with the facts. No one else was warming up alongside Soria in the ninth; if the Royals had been concerned with Soria’s availability prior to that date, they almost certainly would have had someone ready to come in if the go-ahead run had come to the plate.

2) Soria did not appear in a game until April 22nd, when he closed out the ninth against the Indians, but shakily, giving up a walk and single with one out, and a passed ball to put the tying runs in scoring position with two outs, before ending the game on a questionable strike three call against Trevor Crowe.

3) The Royals finally came clean with the injury before the game on Friday, even though (they claimed) Soria had an MRI on his shoulder the following evening which revealed no abnormalities.

The explanation for all of this is pretty straightforward, which is why I’m inclined to believe it. Basically, Soria felt something in his shoulder while warming up on Saturday night. That “something” was evidently not serious enough to keep him from pitching entirely; he would have likely come into the game anyway had Greinke allowed another baserunner. And from Sunday through Wednesday, Soria was evidently available but only for one-inning stints, which explains why Hillman refused to use him in anything other than the holy Ninth Inning Save Situation. Soria finally got into a game on Wednesday, continued to feel soreness the following day, and that’s when the Royals decided to come clean.

And keep in mind, along with a firm timeline that explains all the weird bullpen shenanigans of last week, we have a pretty obvious reason for the injury in the first place: the World Baseball Classic, which resulted in Soria being used for exactly two innings over a two-week span. Soria isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, pitcher to suffer as a result of the unpredictable usage patterns the WBC brings to pitchers at the exact point in the year where they most need predictable work to get their arms ready for the season. Assuming Soria just needs a little rest, we should consider ourselves lucky that the only fallout is a week or two of forced inactivity. Let’s hope that come 2013, the tournament structure will have moved to later in March with a much more compressed schedule, which ought to address the main concerns of too much downtime for relievers (and too many pitchers for starters) too early in spring training.

“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.”

Last Sunday, Hillman called on Juan Cruz, Ron Mahay, and Jamey Wright with a lead, and Kyle Farnsworth in a tie, while the only sighting of Soria was of him lightly tossing the ball in the bullpen in the eighth. Hillman’s usage of his bullpen that day is consistent with the theory that Soria was available to pitch the ninth inning – if Soria was unavailable to pitch at all, you’d have to figure that Cruz would have been saved for that situation.

If Hillman erred in the way he handled the pen in this game, his error didn’t come in the eighth, when he used Ron Mahay and Jamey Wright as the inning melted down, but in the seventh. If Soria is only available for one inning, why was Hillman so keen on pulling Juan Cruz from the game after only two outs? Cruz should have been left in to face Josh Hamilton, who only represented the tying run, not the go-ahead run. If Cruz retired Hamilton, he was in fine position to pitch through the eighth and hand the ball directly off to Soria with an off-day coming. If Hamilton reached base, Cruz would still get to face the right-handed Andruw Jones – a matchup that definitely favored the pitcher.

“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.”

Um, yeah.

Ultimately, you have to take some positives from this. Soria really did have AITP. His version of AITP does appear to be curable. Our manager is not a complete and utter moron. And the cure for what appeared to be imbecilic bullpen management may be as simple as the cure for Soria’s achy shoulder – a little bit of rest.

Hillman has made some poor decisions this month, and they certainly can’t all be blamed on Soria’s arm. Opening Day is still on him. But Soria’s injury changes the narrative, from “our manager is actively costing our team a chance at the playoffs” to “our manager has made some bad decisions along with some good decisions, and overall he’s neither an asset nor a liability.” Ultimately, the Royals are 10-10 – that’s a good thing. They’ve allowed the fewest runs in the majors. The offense is dead-average in the American League in walks drawn with 73, which for the Royals represents enormous improvement. They rank a surprising fifth in the league in defensive efficiency despite an infield that will be the subject of a lot of campfire stories this summer.

Hillman’s not perfect. But take away the biggest imperfection on his resume this season, look at the Royals’ performance from a distance, and suddenly his track record looks a lot better. The Royals can survive without Soria for a week or two – hell, the Royals haven’t been in need of his services even once since the injury was revealed. They can’t survive with a manager as dumb a Hillman appeared to be. So let’s all be thankful that Soria should be back soon, and that when he returns, he’ll be under the watchful eye of a manager who’s a little bit smarter than we were all giving him credit for.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Future Has Arrived.

(In light of recent events, I owe all of you – and particularly Trey Hillman – my thoughts on the news that Joakim Soria has been battling a shoulder problem. (AITP exists? Who knew?) But I think you’ll all understand when I say that another pitcher deserves our attention first.)

Four years ago, I somewhat famously (some might say infamously) wrote in the pages of Baseball Prospectus 2005, “With apologies to Jon Landau, we have seen the future of pitching, and his name is Zack Greinke.”

With apologies to myself, Zack Greinke is not the future of pitching.

He is the present.

Being a die-hard Royals fan for the past two decades has no doubt made me rather annoying to the other baseball fans I have worked with, fans who would rather not hear me boast that Jeremy Giambi could be the second coming of John Mayberry, or that Jeremy Affeldt might just be the next Sandy Koufax. But I’d like to think that it also made me rather endearing in a pathetic sort of way. “Oh look, Rany’s so cute when he talks about Dee Brown as a future All-Star! Calvin Pickering could hit 40 homers? How adorable!”

Because being a fan means clinging to hope, no matter how absurd that hope appears to be: that’s the deal you make when you sign up. I never gave up hope, no matter how grim things looked, no matter how silly I looked. And if I couldn’t hold on to a reasonable hope regarding the Royals as a team, at least I could put my faith in individual players. I believed in Giambi and Affeldt, in Brown and Pickering, in Mark Quinn and Kyle Snyder, in Chris George and Jimmy Gobble, in Dan Reichert and Jeff Austin.

But in the last 15 years, I have neither hoped more nor dreamed higher for a player than I have for Donald Zackary Greinke. And no player has strained the bonds of those hopes and dreams quite like The Baseball Jonah.

I have been a Royals fan for a quarter-century, but I’ve only ever owned one Royals jersey, and it has a “23” on the back. I love Gil Meche, but I don’t plan my schedule around the nights that he’s on the mound.

I’ve watched Greinke’s career unfold from the day he was drafted, to the positive reports from his first instructional league, from the first whispers that he might be The One that drifted up from Latin America when he played there in winter ball, just six months out of high school, the youngest American ever to pitch down there.

I tracked his every start in Wilmington in 2003, when the Zack Greinke Phenomenon went mainstream. (For the record: July 14, 2003. That’s the day Joe Posnanski introduced Greinke – not just the pitcher, the person – to the sports world. And that's when you realize something remarkable: Zack Greinke has never been nervous in his entire life. He doesn't even know what it feels like.”)

There are still some who argue that the biggest mistake the Royals made in that magical run of 2003 was not promoting Greinke to the majors and putting him into the rotation by July or August, as the team started to fade down the stretch. Mind you, Greinke was 19 at the time.

He finally made the rotation the following May, at 20, and was terrific from day one. He went 8-11 for a team that lost 104 games, finished with a 3.97 ERA, struck out an even 100 batters against just 26 walks. My daughter Cedra was 18 months old that June, and after weeks of coaching, she finally had her answer down pat. “Who’s the best pitcher in the world?” “Zac-rine-key!” It wasn’t the right answer, mind you. But it was the future of right answers.

And then, of course, someone had to go and remind Greinke that he was a Royal. A solid start to the 2005 season quickly disintegrated; from May 20th until the end of the season, Greinke went 5-13 with a 6.73 ERA, giving up an astonishing 189 hits in 136 innings over that span. The highlight of his season was the home run he tomahawked over the fence at Chase Field – in the process of becoming the first Royal in history to surrender 11 runs in one game.

And then he was gone. Home to Florida, burnt out at the age of 22. He was certain he through with baseball, a sentiment that many people around baseball shared. Baseball is a difficult game, and the culture of baseball is unforgiving. The future of pitching was in the past.

If this were the Royals of old, the story would end here. Only it didn’t. Greinke was nurtured back to health with counseling, medication, and the kindness and patience of two men who have suffered the slings and arrows of my words as much as anyone, Allard Baird and Buddy Bell. Greinke learned to enjoy baseball again, first in Wichita, then in the bullpen, then in the rotation.

He came back a different pitcher. The genius of Greinke as a rookie was that he pitched in defiance of the style of every young hotshot pitcher to come up over the years. He paced himself, he varied the speed on his fastball, he’d throw any pitch in any count, he’d throw pitches that no one had ever seen before. And for the better part of two years, we raved about how precocious this young man was, how he pitched with the guts and guile of a 15-year veteran. Only it turned out that Greinke didn’t throw that way because he was wise beyond his years. He pitched fearlessly because in order to be afraid of failure, you have to care about success. Greinke simply didn’t care enough about the results to be intimidated by the challenge.

So when he returned with a new sense of purpose, he also returned with new life on his fastball. Gone were the days of sitting at 89 and touching 92; now he was sitting at 92 and touching 95, and in the bullpen he was hitting 97 and 98. He streamlined his approach – gone were the LaLob curveballs in the 50s and the occasional attempts to skirt the law forbidding quick pitches, and in their place was a fairly straightforward repertoire: fastball in the 90s, slider in the 80s, curveball in the 70s, changeup in emergencies only.

He announced his return with authority in a brilliant start against the White Sox on September 20th, 2007, allowing just two hits in eight scoreless innings, striking out 10. He followed that up with his best season in 2008, winning 13 games, throwing 202 innings, posting a 3.47 ERA (the lowest by any Royals starter since 1997), and striking out 183 (the most by any Royals starter since 1997). The fans fell in love again. He returned the favor, signing a four-year contract.

If this were the Royals of old, this is where Greinke would get hurt, or suffer another change of heart, or simply continue to tease Royals fans with glimpses of dominance occasionally peeking out between mountains of untapped potential.

These are not the Royals of old. This is not the Zack Greinke of old. He is not the future of pitching. He is not just some vessel transporting that most cursed of possessions, potential. Like an alchemist who has suddenly found the philosopher’s stone, Greinke has overnight transmuted the weighty iron of his potential into brilliant gold that he molds into goose eggs every fifth day.

It took Greinke five years to become an overnight sensation, and what a sensation he is. He threw 38 consecutive scoreless innings, the longest in Royals history, before the streak came to an end when Mike Aviles’ relay throw hit Gerald Laird sliding into third base, allowing Laird to score. If Aviles holds onto the ball, that streak would be at 43, which would put Greinke at 12th all-time and give him the longest streak since Orel Hershiser set the record in 1988.

(The irony is that Greinke's scoreless streak ended on an unearned run, given that as I wrote about last year, Greinke's pitching style makes him as unlikely to surrender an unearned run as any pitcher in baseball.)

Laird’s cheap run only succeeded in making Greinke mad. He retired the next 13 batters in order; Laird’s double was the only baserunner Greinke surrendered after the second inning. For the second straight start, Greinke went the distance, which had not happened since Jamey Wright did it in 2003. For the second straight start, Greinke whiffed 10 batters, which had not happened since Kevin Appier did it in 1996.

(Remember, over a seven-year span from September 1999 to September 2006, a Royals pitcher reached 10 strikeouts in a game exactly once – by Blake Stein on June 17, 2001. Greinke has done it twice in a week.)

Greinke was so dominant on Friday night that the Royals won, 6-1, they never appeared in any danger of losing the game, and I still had trouble falling asleep because they didn’t win 6-0. The way he’s throwing now, you have to wonder if he’s simply going to start another streak right away. As it is, he’s the third pitcher of the Retrosheet era (since 1954), after Hershiser and Don Drysdale, to go six straight starts without surrendering an earned run. He has a chance to be the first with seven straight starts.

Unfortunately, that scoreless streak is completely unofficial because Greinke had the audacity to record his streak over two seasons. So let’s just look at this season. Greinke leads the majors in wins, with four. He leads in ERA, with 0.00. In the Retrosheet era (since 1954), only one other pitcher gave up no earned runs in his first four starts: Fernando Valenzuela, in 1985. (Amazingly, Valenzuela also gave up just one run in his first four starts in his rookie season, 1981.)

Greinke leads the American League in strikeouts (36) and strikeouts per nine innings (11.17), along with complete games and shutouts. And suddenly, there seems to be no dream that seems out of Greinke’s reach.

A Cy Young Award? He has to be considered the early favorite. Three hundred strikeouts? If he makes 34 starts, he’s on pace for 306 Ks. If 300 is a stretch, the franchise record of 244, set by Dennis Leonard in 1977, is not. The first Sports Illustrated cover shot by a Royal since, who, Bo Jackson? With our man Poz working on the inside now, you have to think that it’s coming.

There will be bumps and potholes along the way, no doubt. Greinke will give up an earned run or two at some point this season; he may even, perish the thought, lose a game. But for once, Royals fans can forgo basking in the dream of what may come, and can instead bask in the memory of what just happened. On a Friday night in Kansas City, in front of a sellout crowd, with fans in the bleachers putting up K cards with every strikeout, Zack Greinke threw a masterpiece effort to give the Royals an uncontested hold on first place.

On the day after Tony Gonzalez, the best player in the Kansas City sports scene for the past decade, was traded to Atlanta, Greinke made his best pitch to be Gonzalez’s replacement. On the day before the Chiefs began their first draft under new management in two decades, Greinke announced his intention to make Kansas City a baseball town again. Bob Dutton’s lede began, “Is this the night, after more than a generation, that baseball truly became relevant again in Kansas City? Maybe. Just maybe.” Bob Dutton, folks. I write stuff like that all the time – I’m Dr. Hyperbole. Dutton is Mr. Tell-It-Like-It-Is. When he says that this game might be the tipping point for baseball in Kansas City, that’s an opinion you have to take seriously.

The best part of Friday night’s game came afterwards, when Joel Goldberg interviewed Greinke about his outing. It wasn’t the answers Greinke gave, it was the way he delivered them: with a goofy grin on his face, almost like he couldn’t believe how much fun he was having. Like he had suddenly realized that he enjoyed playing baseball, and that he enjoyed being rooted on by a sellout crowd, and that the 36,363 in attendance might have equally enjoyed watching him play. Maybe he realized that all the years it took getting to this point didn’t hurt his relationship with the fans of Kansas City – it only strengthened it. And that we’re all very much looking forward to enjoying the next four years together.

Maybe Greinke won’t single-handedly carry the Royals into the postseason this year, though I’m certainly not about to rule that out. But the saving grace here is that, as a wise man once said, “I have seen the future, and it’s much like the present – only longer.” If the next four years look anything like his last four starts, Greinke is going to have plenty of chances to pitch us into the playoffs.

In the meantime, let’s enjoy what we have, starting Wednesday night against the Blue Jays. Greg Maddux was Must-See TV in the mid-90s, and the Pedro Experience was the greatest show in baseball at the turn of the century. But since Pedro lost his fastball there hasn’t been a truly transcendent pitcher in the game, the kind of pitcher that entices even fans of other teams to tune in every five days because they’re afraid they might miss something historic. It’s too early to proclaim 2009 the start of the Zack Greinke Experience. But it’s not too early to hope, and it’s not too crazy to dream. With Greinke, nothing is too crazy to dream.

Not even this: the best pitcher in the world just might be Zac-rine-key.