Saturday, May 30, 2009

Day Trip!

I think it’s time I witness this carnage for myself.

In a plan that was hatched late Thursday night, agreed to by exasperated wives on Friday afternoon, and finalized on Saturday morning, I am booked on a flight to Kansas City early Sunday morning with my friend Eiman and his ten-year-old son Yusuf. (Tragically, both father and son are White Sox fans. I can report that, at least judging from their complete lack of tattoos and avoidance of alcohol, they have no relation to the Ligue family – Rusty Kuntz has nothing to fear. In fact, judging from their overall pleasant demeanor and attention to grooming, it is entirely possible that they are not White Sox fans at all.)

The singular purpose of this trip is to see the Zack Greinke Experience up close and personal. Mind you, this trip does not come without risk. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Greinke win a game when I’ve been present, and the last time I saw him pitch live was this game. This risk is mitigated by the fact that Yusuf is something like 0-for-9 in watching the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. We’ve never watched a Royals-White Sox tilt together, and now that the irresistible force and the immovable object meet, it’s quite possible that the outcome will turn out something like this, with the game not decided until after we’ve had to return back to the airport.

If Greinke puts up his first stinker of the season tomorrow, you’ll know who’s responsible for the smell. But the way things have gone the last three weeks, I’m thinking it’s time for an intervention. If not an exorcism.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Zack Stat Pack: Start #10. And Some Odds and Ends.

Well, it’s official now: Zack Greinke is off to the best start to the season by any pitcher since the Royals came into existence.

He came into this game needing to allow no more than one earned run (in seven innings or less), or no more than two earned runs (if he went more than seven innings), in order to keep his ERA under 1. That possibility looked to be in danger when he gave up a soft run in the first, on a bloop double that caressed the left-field foul line, and a bloop single that shattered Magglio Ordonez’s bat. Fortunately, Greinke spent the next eight innings proving that run to be the aberration it appeared to be, and even more fortunately, the Royals finally found some offense in the sixth inning when the Tigers proved that even after the 2006 World Series, they still need to work on PFP.

(The bunt is a poor-percentage play overall, but in addition to the odds of beating out a bunt for a single, even a slight chance that the pitcher throws the ball past the first baseman makes the play look a lot better – particularly when the bunter is Luis Hernandez, whose career batting average in Triple-A is .214.)

Ten starts into the season, Greinke is 8-1 with a 0.84 ERA. He broke the team record he shared with Kevin Appier by making his 12th consecutive start without allowing more than two earned runs. Even more impressive, Greinke has now made 12 consecutive starts without allowing more than two runs, earned or not; Appier and Paul Splittorff held the previous record with nine in a row. (The longest streak of starts with two or fewer runs allowed in the Retrosheet era is 14, by Greg Maddux in 1993 and Mike Scott in 1986.)

Going back to last year, Greinke has not allowed a home run in 14 consecutive starts, which is not even the longest streak set this year – the Astros’ Wandy Rodriguez had a stretch of 15 starts that ended last week. The Retrosheet record is 21 in a row, set by wormkiller Zane Smith between 1985 and 1986. (Smith walked 75 batters in 139 innings in that span, which may explain why he went just 7-9.)

The Royals’ record is 16 in a row, set by Al Fitzmorris in 1976. Mark Gubicza and Dick Drago both had 15 starts in a row without a homer as well.

And finally, and most importantly, is this, which (as best as I could research) is the list of the lowest ERAs after 10 starts since 1954:

1966 Juan Marichal 0.59

2009 Zack Greinke 0.84

2000 Pedro Martinez 1.05

Greinke has the best ERA by a starting pitcher after ten starts in over 40 years.

In his 11th start, Marichal gave up three runs, raising his ERA to 0.80, and he got pounded for six runs in his 12th start, whereupon his ERA jumped to 1.29. Aside from Marichal, I can find only three pitchers whose ERA dipped below 1.00 at any point after they had made 10 starts. One was Hoyt Wilhelm, who in 1959 made 10 starts (and two relief appearances) to start the year, and gave up 10 earned runs in 90.1 innings, for a 0.996 ERA. Bob Gibson’s ERA famously touched 0.99 after 29 starts. Finally, Pedro Martinez, as I mentioned before, threw eight shutout innings in his 11th start in 2000, lowering his ERA to 0.95.

So if I’m doing the math right, then if Greinke throws four or more shutout innings in his next start, he will have a lower ERA than Marichal did after 11 starts, meaning lower than anyone in the Retrosheet era (and possibly in the history of baseball) has had at any point with more than ten starts. If Greinke allows no more than two earned runs in his next two starts combined (assuming he throws at least ten innings combined), he will undercut Pedro’s ERA after 12 starts in 2000, giving him the best ERA of any pitcher with 12 or more starts.

Yeah. He’s good.

- I forgot to link to this in my last post, but last Thursday’s radio show can be downloaded, as always, here.

You will notice that last week’s show was surprisingly Will Leitch-free, as our scheduled guest declined to answer his phone despite numerous attempts to have him do so. Afterwards I learned why: Leitch was not in possession of a phone, thanks to a story that involved him, an iPhone, a New York City street…and an entrepreneurial thief on a bicycle. Don’t take my word for it: here’s Leitch’s long and rather entertaining explanation for what happened.

The moral, I think, is clear: New York City is an evil place, filled with thieves on bicycles, rapists, murderers, and even Yankees fans. Don’t make the mistake of moving there – Leitch, a salt-of-the-earth Midwestern kid from downstate Illinois, did and now he loves Woody Allen movies and once wrote a book called “Life as a Loser”. Sad, really. So heed my advice and avoid New York. It’s enough that the Royals get mugged every time they visit – going back to 1995, the Royals are 12-49 in New York.

- Note that this week’s show will start a little early, at 6:30 CDT, to avoid conflicting with the Cavaliers-Magic game being carried on 810 WHB. Mind you, we all know that the Magic are winning. Poz has taken care of that.

- One section of my last post became obsolete almost immediately after it was posted, when the Royals announced that they were only sending Luke Hochevar down to Omaha until the next time they needed a fifth starter, on June 6th.

Obviously, that changes the calculus of this move significantly. I have long been an advocate of the four-man rotation, or failing that, the five-day rotation, where a team’s top four starters pitch on four days’ rest whenever possible, and the fifth starter being used as a swingman when his start day gets passed over. There are 182 days from Opening Day to the final day of the season. In theory, a pitcher who starts on Opening Day and pitches every fifth day should be able to make 37 starts if the off-days and the All-Star Break fall just right, or 36 at the very least. Unfortunately, not one major league team has had the guts to keep even one of their pitchers on an every-fifth-day schedule in six years; Roy Halladay and Greg Maddux are the last two pitchers to make 36 starts in a season, back in 2003.

Greinke and Gil Meche have both vocally expressed their preference for sticking to an every-fifth-day schedule. Whatever advantage is gained by getting a day off to rest is lost by disrupting a pitcher’s off-day schedule. And if you read the studies I linked above, you’ll find that there is no evidence to suggest that pitchers do better on four days’ rest than on three days’ rest, so I can’t imagine why they’d do better on five days’ rest than four.

The Royals started the season with an obvious Big Three, and Brian Bannister, to his immense credit, has worked his way back from being the team’s seventh starter in spring training to being a very capable #4 starter – really, the team’s second-best starter this season. But the Royals have struggled to come up with a fifth starter all year. Hochevar, Sidney Ponson, and Horacio Ramirez have combined for ten starts, and in those ten starts have gone 1-7 with a 7.59 ERA. By comparison, the Big Four have gone 16-10 with a 3.04 ERA.

By going to a four-man rotation – even if it’s only for two turns through the rotation – Hillman is basically replacing a 7.59 ERA with a 3.04 ERA twice. That’s an absolutely enormous difference – even in just two starts, that works out to about seven fewer runs allowed, which is worth nearly a win. I’m not sure there’s anything a manager can do to improve his team’s record more efficiently than simply finding a way to get a few more starts to his best starters.

I still think that if this were a long-term decision, that Hochevar would be better served by going to the bullpen than continuing to start in Omaha. Some commenters have made the argument that you want a starting pitcher to practice being a starting pitcher, essentially. That sounds great in theory, but baseball history is strongly on the side of letting a promising potential starter learn how to get major league hitters out in the bullpen, where he can gain the confidence that comes from throwing a little harder and focusing on his best pitchers, before being asked to stretch things out over time. It worked for the many Oriole pitchers that came up under Earl Weaver, it worked for Johan Santana, and yes, it worked for Zack Greinke, who needed a bullpen stint in 2007 to realize that he could actually throw 95 without sacrificing control.

But over a two-week stretch, that’s a moot point. Hochevar should be back when the Royals need him. Let’s hope that this won’t be the last time that he gets skipped if it means moving The Zack Greinke Experience up a day. That guy’s good.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Another May. Another Mayday!

Alright, that’s it, I’m done – no more positive posts the rest of the season.

If we’re not losing six games in a row immediately after I write Game On, we’re losing four in a row – the last two by shutout – after I write about the Game of the Year. I realize that pride goeth before a fall, but this is ridiculous.

(As an aside: the next time someone talks to you about the importance of “momentum” in sports, point them to the events of the past week. The Royals staged their biggest ninth-inning comeback in over five years on Tuesday, against a team that had been blowing late-inning leads all year long. Any definition of momentum worth its salt would have you believe that the Royals, playing on an emotional high, would crush the distraught Indians over the next two games. Instead, the Royals were the ones that blew a 3-0 lead the following day. And after they got to Kerry Wood in the ninth, loading the bases on walks with one out…Wood suddenly found his breaking ball and struck out the next two batters. The Royals lost again the next day despite having Greinke on the mound and a lead after six innings.

Momentum means NOTHING. Momentum is a post ipso facto term: it’s a term that explains things after the fact, not in the moment. Momentum is used to describe which team has played the best in the immediate past – the problem is that people use it to predict which team will play the best in the immediate future. Yes, it’s true that the Royals had the “momentum” after Tuesday’s game, but what people mean when they say the Royals have momentum is that the results of Tuesday’s game make the Royals more likely to win on Wednesday. And that is bunk. It should be patently obvious to any serious sports fan that momentum is a ridiculous concept, but it’s not, for one simple reason: when the team that has the momentum suddenly stops playing so well, we say THE MOMENTUM HAS SHIFTED. Momentum can switch at the turn of a dime – but if momentum can shift back and forth so easily, doesn’t that imply that it’s meaningless?

People who believe in momentum remind me of conspiracy theorists, who argue that the fact that every NASA official denies that Neil Armstrong’s moon landing was filmed on a sound stage is proof of just how big the conspiracy is. Momentum believers will argue that the fact that Cleveland won on Wednesday is proof that momentum is important – it’s just that the Indians somehow recaptured the momentum during the game.

And in fairness, I should point out that I was the one who argued after Tuesday’s game that it might have buried Cleveland’s season. I didn’t make that argument based on momentum, but based on the fact that the Indians’ bullpen was so hopeless that it was hard to see how they could overcome it to win the division.)

So anyway, for the second straight year the Royals have watched their season crumble before their eyes in late May. Last season, the Royals went into Boston one fine May evening and got no-hit by Jon Lester, which catapulted them into a 12-game losing streak. This year, the Royals started a roadtrip in Anaheim with a loss to a 30-year-old rookie named Matt Palmer, which started a stretch of 11 losses in 14 games.

But I would submit that these are two very, very different things. I know that half of Royals Nation is ready to throw in the towel, but this is nothing like 2008. As I write this, the Royals stand 21-22. Last season, at the start of their 12-game losing streak, the Royals were 21-22. They went into Boston in third place, 1.5 games out of first – when the streak ended, they were 9 games out and buried in last place. This year, the Royals were 18-11 and had a three-game lead on the division when they went into the tank – and even today, they still hold second place to themselves, and stand four games behind the Tigers.

The Rockies finally pulled the horseshoe out of Detroit’s ass last night, ending the Tigers seven-game winning streak that included back-to-back one-run wins that ended with the tying run on third base. So if the Royals get a favorable outcome today, they would need only a three-game sweep of the Tigers at home – with Meche, Greinke, and Davies starting – to be back atop the division by Wednesday night. That’s not likely, mind you. But the mere fact that it’s possible is testament to how silly it is to be giving up on the season already.

(The Royals really can’t afford to lose the series with Detroit, because after this week the Royals have just three more home games against the Tigers – with all nine games in Detroit yet to be played.)

Yes, the Royals have the same record after 43 games that they had last year. But to argue that this means they’ve made no progress is as silly as arguing that they’re going win more than 102 games because – as Martin Manley points out – they have a better record after 43 games than the 1977 Royals did. Last year, after losing 12 games in a row I wrote this. Today, I'm writing this. There's a big difference.

I planned to write about the moves that the Royals needed to make to shake themselves out of their slump, but since the Royals went ahead and made a bunch of transactions after yesterday’s game, I’ll talk about those instead.

Robinson Tejada to the DL, John Bale promoted.

The first transaction I was going to recommend was for the Royals to promote Bale and release Horacio Ramirez. Bale has been a rumor for most of his two-plus years in Kansas City; after signing from Japan in 2007, he didn’t debut until mid-July, and last season, after the ill-fated attempt to make him a starter landed him on the DL after three starts, he didn’t return until September.

The thing is, when he has pitched out of the bullpen, he’s pitched awfully well. He had a solid 4.05 ERA in 2007, with 42 Ks and 17 walks in 40 innings (and just one homer allowed), and threw 11 scoreless innings in relief upon his return last season. This season was once again delayed by health issues, this time for an overactive thyroid, but in six appearances in Double-A this month he has allowed just one earned run and five baserunners in 6.2 innings. He doesn’t have a huge platoon split, so like Ron Mahay he’s not ideally suited for a LOOGY role, but he’s competent enough against both sides of the plate that he makes for a nice second lefty in the pen.

The problem is that he’s not replacing Ramirez, who has been tried both as a starter and as a reliever and found wanting in both roles. I may have been wrong about the merits of signing Willie Bloomquist, and I’ll even accept the argument that the judgment is still out on Kyle Farnsworth, even though it so happens that his scoreless streak has come almost entirely in low-pressure situations. But I (and every Royals fan I know) was dead right about HoRam, whose $1.8 million contract looks even dumber today than it did when he first signed it. Ramirez’s ERAs in his last four stops look like this: 7.16, 2.59, 7.62, 7.64. The fact that the second number in that sequence came with the Royals is no excuse for ignoring the first and third numbers. The Royals did anyway, which is why the fourth number has also come in a Royals uniform. Ramirez is an inexcusable waste of a roster spot, and an even more inexcusable waste of money.

But Ramirez stays for now, though hopefully not for long. Instead, the Royals lose the services of Tejeda, who has probably been their best reliever all season – he leads the bullpen in strikeouts, and ranks second behind Jamey Wright in ERA, only Wright has given up seven unearned runs to Tejeda’s zero. Despite pitching well all year, Hillman has been extremely reluctant to use him in tight situations. Baseball Prospectus has a stat called “Leverage” for relievers, which measures the importance of the game situation in which a reliever is brought in to pitch. Of the nine relievers the Royals have used this year, Tejeda’s Leverage ranks seventh, ahead of only Farnsworth (barely) and Doug Waechter, who pitched in only three games. I mean, Sir Sidney has a higher Leverage score than Tejeda. Hillman has made a lot of mistakes with the bullpen in the micro sense, but in the macro sense, no mistake looms larger than his complete refusal to use one of his best relievers in important situations.

Hillman won’t have to worry about making that mistake for a while, because Tejeda is out with a “strained rotator cuff”. This injury comes out of the blue, and the Royals did backdate his DL stint to his last appearance, but let’s be honest: “strained” and “rotator cuff” are not words that you like to see connected. Tejeda’s the kind of maximum-effort pitcher that is prone to this kind of an injury. If we see him back before July, I’ll be surprised.

Luke Hochevar to Omaha, Roman Colon to Kansas City.

Yeah, I don’t like this one much at all. Hochevar didn’t pitch particularly well yesterday, but neither he did pitch all that bad, particularly after the first inning – he did get 12 groundball outs, which is a sign that his sinker was working. The Royals picked an awfully strange time to send him back to Omaha – if he didn’t earn a demotion after his first two atrocious starts, I don’t see how he earned one yesterday. More to the point, I don’t see how sending him to Omaha helps any, as he’s already proven he can pitch down there. He’s likely to learn more pitching out of the bullpen than he would in Triple-A. This demotion strikes me as punitive, which makes me wonder if there’s something to the story we don’t know about.

(Oh, and the next time the Royals make a statement about one of their players, feel free to believe the exact opposite. Let’s face it: honesty isn’t always the strong suit of this front office. Joakim Soria wasn’t hurt, except that he was. Twenty-four hours after Moore waxes poetic about Hochevar’s ability, he sends him down to Omaha. I don’t know what – or who – to believe anymore.)

It doesn’t help that the Royals are replacing him with Roman Colon, a.k.a. Latin Bowel, who Moore has had a fetish for since his Atlanta days, even though Colon’s major league record is mediocre at best. In three major league seasons, Colon has a 5.03 ERA in 127 innings, and has allowed 23 home runs. He hasn’t pitched in the majors in three years, and in the interim he was suspended from the Tigers’ Triple-A team because he got into a fight with his teammates, a fight that led to another player getting his jaw broken. Colon turns 30 in August, and his 2.84 ERA in Omaha notwithstanding, I see no reason to think that he’ll pitch better in relief than Hochevar would. Unless the point here is to get him to provoke a tussle with Jose Guillen, I don’t see how this transaction makes the Royals any better – now or in the future.

The upside to this transaction is that it opens up a spot in Omaha’s bullpen. I’m still waiting to hear who gets promoted from Northwest Arkansas. If it turns out that Omaha catches Disco Fever, then I approve. Official Friend of the Blog Chris Hayes, you recall, had a 1.64 ERA in Double-A last season, which impressed the Royals so much that they…sent him back to Double-A. This year, he has a 0.68 ERA – yes, better than Zack Greinke – and has allowed just 25 baserunners in 26 innings. He has a G/F ratio of better than 4 to 1. I’m not sure what else he can do to earn a promotion short of rushing into a burning building or working as a Wal-Mart greeter to earn extra cash.

Mike Aviles to the DL, Tug Hulett promoted.

Now this move I can get behind. Aviles should have been put on the DL as soon as he revealed his forearm strain, but the Royals’ crack medical staff used the same wisdom it applied to Joakim Soria, figuring a few days of rest would do the trick. After a 1-for-12 stretch upon his return, someone got the crazy idea that Aviles might actually need some time to heal. I’ve already advocated for Aviles to go back to Omaha in order to rediscover his swing, so if this DL stint is followed by some rehab time in Nebraska, his season might actually be worth saving.

In his place, Hulett is a nice use of a roster spot. He’s a left-handed hitting middle infielder, which in itself is a nice mix of talents, but he can actually hit - .296/.381/.461 this year, .298/.380/.518 last year. He’s played mostly second base in Omaha this year, but last season made 45 starts at shortstop in Triple-A. Given that Willie Bloomquist isn’t the world’s greatest shortstop to begin with, it would be nice to see the Royals add some pop to the lineup by starting Hulett at shortstop against right-handers. Sadly, this may require more creativity than Hillman is capable of.

The short story here is this: I wouldn’t panic by the fact that the Royals are in the midst of a tough stretch. But I would worry that the Royals’ response to this slump is to make a bunch of moves that don’t materially improve the ballclub. The Royals are still capable of getting things in gear – but instead they seem content to spin their wheels.